Chanukah – Miracles Within – Bilvavi

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Chanukah

Miracles – When Nature Is Overcome[1]

On Chanukah, we make a blessing of שעשה ניסים לאבותינו, expressing our thanks to Hashem for this time where He performed miracles for us. Although we also experienced miracles on Pesach, only the Rabbinical festivals of Chanukah and Purim contain a blessing where we thank Hashem for the miracles performed, which we express in the prayer of Al HaNissim in Shemoneh Esrei.

Hashem runs the world through a system of laws He created which we know as “nature” (teva), and He also built into this a system that works above the normal laws of “nature”: miracles (nisim). Hashem has allowed the laws of “nature” that He created to be the system of the normal “laws” (chukim) which He runs the world with.

When we analyze Creation deeper, there are actually different kinds of “nature” in creation. There are four classifications in Creation: the non-living objects (doimem), plants (tzomeiach), animals (chai), and people (medaber). Each of these has their own specific natures. Human beings, animals, plants, and inanimate objects each have their own specific kind of “nature”.

Each of the creations has their limitations. If Hashem enables a rock to grow and have life to it, it would be a miracle for the rock, because the nature of a rock is that it cannot grow. If Hashem were to allow a plant to move from place to place like an animal can, this would be a miracle for the plant, because a plant’s nature is that it does not grow. If an animal is allowed by Hashem to talk, such as the donkey of Bilaam who was allowed to talk, this is a miracle for the animal, because an animal’s nature is that it cannot talk.

Thus, what is the depth of a miracle (nes)? It is when a different “nature” is revealed in something. A miracle is not simply that Hashem changes the rules. Rather, as the Ramban and others explained, the definition of a “miracle” is when a lower level creation is allowed to function on a level that is normally above its natural level. When a rock can grow, when a plant can walk, when an animal can talk, these are all miracles, because they would be functioning on a higher level than they are normally on. Thus, in the days of Chanukah, we experienced “miracles” in the sense that a higher level of creation was revealed within this lower realm that we dwell on.

Becoming Uplifted To A Higher Level

When one has a difficulty (nisayon\נסיון), either his avodah is to find a way to run away from it (וינס), such as what happened with Yosef when he had to run away from the wife of Potiphar; and sometimes the avodah of going through a nisayon is to bear through it and thereby become uplifted from it (להתנוסס).

When the family of the Chashmonaim had to go to war with the Greeks, it was a nisayon for them, and they passed the test, becoming uplifted from it and rising to a higher level than before. That was the miracle. The Chashmonaim faced some difficulty in their avodah in their own individual souls, and because they passed the difficulty, they were elevated to a higher level, where miracles were performed for them.

In clearer terms, as mentioned earlier, a miracle is when a lower level creation is allowed by Hashem to function on a higher level. This can apply within human beings as well: what is considered nature for one person might be considered a miracle for another person, and vice versa. If Shimon is on a lower spiritual level than Reuven, and Shimon rises to the level of Reuven (which is a natural level for Reuven to be on), this is a miracle for Shimon.

Thus, every year when Chanukah returns, where the spiritual light of “miracles” is revealed, this does not simply mean that the miracles of Chanukah are revealed to us in the very same way it was revealed to us last year. Rather, the definition is that if we have risen to higher levels since a year ago, last year’s miracle isn’t considered a miracle anymore for us, because it has now become our natural level.

The spiritual light of the miracles are shined upon us during this time of the year, as our Sages explain, but the depth of this concept is that it depends on the level we have reached since last year. If one has passed more nisyonos (difficulties) since last year, he merits a greater level of “miracle” this year, because now that he has become more elevated since last year’s level, the miracle of last year is now his natural level, and he is now ready to receive greater miracles than the year before.

Overcoming Our Own Personal Natures

Applying this to us on a personal level, every person has his own “natures” which Hashem has implanted into his soul. There are four elements contained in our various “natures”: fire, wind, water, and earth. These are the roots of our negative middos (character traits). Fire is the root of conceit and anger, wind is the root of idle speech, water is the root of seeking hedonistic pleasure, and earth is the root of sadness and laziness, with their branching traits.[2] These are the natures of our middos. When one works to improve his middos, he is really working to uproot the various natures that Hashem has implanted in him.
Read more Chanukah – Miracles Within – Bilvavi

Experiencing Chanukah – Rav Itamar Schwartz (Bilvavi)

Rav Itamar Schwartz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Chanukah

The Light of Chanukah: Spiritual Or Physical?

Let us learn here about Chanukah in a way that is not just about something that we go through, but as something that really can affect us, experientially.

All of the festivals contain ohr, spiritual light, but Chanukah in particular is the epitome of ohr. In the other festivals, the light is purely spiritual, but on Chanukah, although the light is also spiritual, it manifests also as a physical light that we empower, through the eight lights that we light on Chanukah.

The lights of Chanukah seem to be lit through a wick and oil, but the inner way to understand it is that the light revealed during Chanukah is what is lighting the wick. The wicks, the oil and the flame that we see are [merely] the physical ‘garments’ that clothe the spiritual light that is Chanukah. Of course, it looks like we are lighting it. But it is really the light [revealed during] Chanukah which is shining through the physical wick.

This is the depth behind the halachah that it is forbidden to benefit from the light of Chanukah: we may not use spirituality for This World. When we light [the menorah], a spiritual light emerges [from the hidden realm of spiritual light]. Our physical eyes just see a candle, but our soul sees spiritual light in it.

Although our soul sees spirituality in things, one needs to have a revelation of his soul in order for the soul to see spirituality. With our physical eyes, all we see are just candles burning; therefore we need to actually connect our soul to the spirituality of the hidden light that is revealed on Chanukah.

Seeing The Lights From Our Soul

The neshamah (Jewish soul) is described in the verse, “נר ה’ נשמת אדם”, “The flame of Hashem is the soul of man”. A ner (flame) is composed of a kli (vessel, or container)), oil, and the fire. Our neshamah is called “ner” (flame),and it is also called “ohr” (light), whereas the “kli” (the vessel or container) that holds the neshamah is our physical guf (the body).

The neshamah is called “ner” (flame). Our physical body is created from earth, whereas the soul in us comes from the “breath of Hashem” that was breathed into man by Hashem. Hashem is entirely ohr, so to speak. The earth which our body comes from is a dark material, thus our body is of a “dark” substance, whereas our soul is taken from “light”. Since man is a combined existence of body and soul, his existence is essentially a mixture of light and darkness.

Every person is essentially a light contained within darkness. There is a statement, “A little light can push away much darkness.”[1] We see from the physical world that a small light can light up a dark room, and so too, when our soul is concealed from our access, we will feel like we are groping in the dark. When our soul becomes revealed to us, however, there is a great light we experience, which sends away the “darkness” that is the body.

Thus, when a person hasn’t yet revealed his soul, he lives in darkness. He will experience life through a dark lens. When a person begins to merit a revelation of his soul, his soul begins to shine, and he experiences a degree of spiritual light.

These are the two kinds of lenses through which we experience life: either we see through a dark lens, or we see life through a lens of light.

In deeper terms, there is ayin ra, a “bad eye”, and ayin tov, a “good eye.” The perspective of “ayin ra” comes from the view of the body, and the perspective of “ayin tov” is the view from the soul.

They are different lenses in a person. It is not simply that there are different personalities of either “ayin ra” or “ayin tov” that some people have positive personalities and some people have negative personalities. Rather, “ayin tov” and “ayin ra” are perspectives of how we experience life – either we are viewing life from the prism of the body, or the soul. “Ayin ra” represents the body’s viewpoint, a view from “darkness”, which is a perspective that is darkened by materialism of This World. Thus it does not offer a clear view on life. In contrast, “ayin tov” is a view of “light”, which is pleasant and calming.

These are root concepts of the soul. The world we are in is a mix of light and darkness, a mix of good and evil. And it is mostly dark. What is the world looking like right now? What is it calling out? It is calling out darkness. The world is conveying to us a message of unhappiness, pain, and difficulty – a life of darkness. It is not a place that is mostly good, pure, holy and happy.

A person sees from the place in himself that he is at now. Therefore, if he has a dark lens on life, if he is living a materialistic kind of life where his body dominates and his soul is unrevealed in his life, then he will see a dark life in front of him. If you view life through dirty glasses, everything will look dirty, even if you are looking at something clean. For this reason, when a person sees others, he usually doesn’t see people as souls whom he can have a connection to. He usually just sees the thick materialism of others, he relates to their superficial shell, and as such, he relates to others as physical bodies, and he does not see them as souls in front of him.

But when a person reveals his soul, he will see others through a clear lens. Then he will see the joy, purity, and cleanliness in front of him. This does not mean that he will be naïve and that he’s not aware of reality. He is well aware of reality on this world, but he has gained a view of others that is pristine, clear, and clean.

For example, when he speaks with others, like when asking someone for directions, he will understand that he is speaking with a soul, and not with a body. When he asks questions to others, he is aware that he is asking it from his soul. And when a person speaks from his soul, the soul of the other picks up on it, because the soul is receptive to the sound of another soul. Where you speak from is what the other person will hear; if you speak from your body, the other person hears your gruff body talking, and when you speak from your soul, the other’s soul hears words coming from your soul.

The world today doesn’t have that much speech coming from the soul. When a person meets another and greets him, does he really mean it that the other should have a good day? “Good morning” has become more like a mannerism. Contrast this with what was said about the Alter of Slobodka, who would practice saying “Good Morning” to himself, because he held that it was giving a beracha (blessing) to others.

This is different view on life – totally.

Speaking and Acting From Within Yourself

When a person is talking, where is he speaking from in himself? A person can talk either from the most external part of himself, or from the most innermost part of himself that he identifies with.

Most natural speech flows from the external part of the soul. The more inner a person’s speech is, the more it reflects the statement “words from the heart enter the heart.” This should not just be limited to when a person is conveying a deep emotion such as “I love you”, or “I feel your pain”. It is referring to how a person speaks all the time. All of the time, we really need to speak from our innermost place that we currently identify with.

Most people live from their body and speak from their body, and the person hearing him hears the words from his body. But when a person speaks from his soul, it can go into another’s soul, and the other person will hear it from his soul, because his soul will pick up on it.

Chanukah is a time of “light”, but it is not just a time to light. The light of Chanukah specifically reminds us that the physical is a container for the spiritual – that our body contains a soul. The other festivals are also a spiritual light, but they don’t take on physical form. The light of Chanukah takes on a physical form, showing us that spirituality can be clothed by physicality.

These are not mere intellectual definitions, but a practical view of life to have every day of your life. We do many actions throughout the day. A person washes his hands, for example. How does he do it? We understand that this is allowed through the brain, which sends messages to the body and enables it to function. But when a person tells “Good Morning” to his children, does he do so with at least a little bit of feeling, at least a little more than when he washes his hands? Certainly, he puts some feeling into it. But how many times a day, or a week, or a month, or a year, though do we act from an inner place in ourselves? Are we speaking from a deeper place in ourselves on a more regular basis?

Most people do not access the depth that is contained in themselves. A person who is living inwardly is someone who lives with his depth, all the time, on a regular basis. He lives always with the deepest place in himself. Just like we all use the sink many times a day, a person who lives life in an inner way is using the deepest place he knows of in himself – all the time.

A person usually accesses his inner depth only when there are extreme emotions, of either intense joy or grief. A person usually cannot take that depth that he has reached and bring it more into his daily life. He may remember the pain he felt from his sadness or the joy that he felt when he rejoiced, but he will not remember the depth of the emotions that he reached.

The depth that we do recognize in ourselves, though – how much are we in touch with it on a daily basis?

Recognition of Ourselves

We must recognize who we are. Of course, the purpose of everything is to recognize Hashem. But if we do not recognize ourselves, we can’t recognize Hashem. Skipping self-recognition prevents recognition of Hashem. From recognizing ourselves, we can come to recognize Hashem[2].

Surely, the deepest thing possible is to connect to Hashem, but before we get to that stage, one has to know himself well and identify the deepest place in himself.

How can it be that a person is not in touch with the deepest part of himself? We can memorize many phone numbers. How can it be that we don’t recognize our own self?

If we really want to live a true life, we need to know what our deepest point is in ourselves, which can take a long time to know. After that, one needs to ask himself if his depth has deepened from before. The way we identify ourselves has to mature as the years go on.

We can say in general how deep the soul is, but you on your own need to uncover the depth of your own soul, and then you need to know how to live with it all the time. At least once a day, make sure that you are using it. That is what Chanukah is all about.

The Deepest Point In Yourself

I will try here to explain what the deepest point of the soul is, but it will be hard to understand it, both intellectually as well as emotionally, because each person is at a different point.

The deepest part of the soul, the deepest experience your soul can know of is to experience your very existence (havayah). (There is really a higher experience, which is to experience the reality of the Creator, which is reached through emunah and d’veykus with Hashem. That is an experience above the “I”, however. Here we are describing the experience that is within the “I”.)

One’s very existence is his deepest experience. It is not the will of a person, it is not aspiration, it is not giving, it is not enduring suffering, and it is not joy. Those are all deep experiences, but the deepest experience is to experience one’s existence.

A person needs to be able to remove all the external layers covering the soul, and then he can experience himself. It is not a place of any desires, because it is above all desires.

When a person purifies himself through doing the mitzvos, through attaining a state of purity, and through correcting his middos, then he calms the soul.[3] He can then experience the soul. When he experiences his own soul, he can feel his existence then and be able to live it on a daily basis.

All day, people are running around, and this causes people not to be in touch with the soul. This refers to internal running as well, in which people are running all the time with their desires. They are not calm inside, and they never reach their soul. Therefore, people wonder what the deepest experience is. But the deepest experience is: to experience your own self!

You can’t live from your depth if you haven’t accessed it yet. When you do access it, you need to then live with it all the time – sensibly, of course. This will reveal more and more depth to you as time goes on. In order to get to your own depth, you first need to live daily with the deepest point in yourself – you can think about it and can feel it throughout the day.

These are not ideas or opinions – it is about life. May we merit from Hashem to know our souls and to realize our depths, our existence, and from there, to reach d’veykus with Hashem.

[1] Chovos HaLevovos: Shaar Yichud HaMaaseh: 5

[2] Raavad (Rabbi Avraham ben David, 10th century scholar); based on the verse, “From my flesh, I see G-d.”

[3] See the series of Getting To Know Your Hisboddedus

Experiencing Chanukah – Rav Itamar Schwartz (Bilvavi)

American Holidays – Thanksgiving Survival Guide, Really Short Version

For the last several years I have not had to face being around my family during any of the chagim because I had lived in Israel. Saying no to attending family holidays, for many people it is an extremely difficult burden to face. How do you say no when it is family? But how can you say yes to the Pesach Family Seder that lasts about 15 minutes and the Rosh Hashanah Meal both First and Second Night that isn’t kosher or Sukkot Chol Hamoed Lunch that isn’t in a Sukkah even when it isn’t raining.

It is so hard because we love our family and we bend over backwards not wanting to alienate them from frumkite, chas v’shalom. But lets face it…knowing that the chagim are all about our relationship with HaKadosh Baruch-Hu and we just can’t get “there” to the loftiest of places in a home where there isn’t Kiddusha…or at least the brand of Kiddusha we need especially on a Yom Tov.

So how do you get out of the holiday of Thanksgiving? It never falls on a Shabbat…ok and it isn’t a Yom Tov… no problem there. The truth is, at least for me, Turkey-Day is the one holiday I don’t want or need to “get out of”. This year, for the first time in many years, I was able to and did attend the Family Thanksgiving Dinner. So here is my Survivors Guide, really short version, to spending Thanksgiving (or July 4th, Memorial Day, Labor Day, New Years Day fill in the blank __ Day) with your family.

It is really important that you are able to do the most important thing on Thanksgiving and that is of course EAT. Waking up early on Thanksgiving, my kosher turkey went in the oven. Quickly the house was filled with all the smells of my childhood. I made everything I needed to feel good at the table…

I was able to sit next to my cousins (of course still at the children’s table) and stuff my belly with yummy Thanksgiving delicacies. I even had enough leftovers at home in the fridge to feel very American on “Black Friday”. The mashed potatoes were my “contribution” to the cornucopia feast. Of course they were parve. I couldn’t bring the traditional buttery potatoes to set along side the table of turkey and spiral-cut-you-know-what!

At the end of the evening as we all reclined in our chairs, everyone wanted to know how I made the yummy dilled mashed fluffy stuff. They were all stunned to hear about my secret to make them creamy with out milk or butter (margarine and light mayonnaise). Smiling to myself I thought of my own theory. They tasted so yummy because they were the only kosher thing on the table…of course other than my shiny aluminum pan, double wrapped foil peeled back filled with all the essentials: half a turkey breast, a mini portion of yams with marshmallow, challah stuffing, string bean casserole and of course parve mashed potatoes. FYI … you can follow the Libby’s Pumpkin Pie recipe on the label but instead of condensed milk, replace with soy milk and Rich’s cream frozen.

Originally Posted in the Birth Months of BBT in Dec 2005

On Disabling the “Frumkeit-Checker” In My Brain

On a school vacation day a number of years ago, here in the Holy Land, I’m out with my brood at an amusement park. The children are scattered; some on the bumper cars, others on trampolines and I’m at the plastic picnic tables along with the other bored adults, waiting for the kids to tire out or the place to shut down, whichever comes first.

Meanwhile, I’m using my idle moments to people watch pretending to be Marcel Proust sitting in a Parisian sidewalk café, which of course, I’m not.

Most of the other patrons are secular Israelis, but then I see, one of us, a frum young mother cradling a newborn baby in her arms. She’s cute—the mother I mean: one of those rare creatures who combines her Yiddishkeit with an inbred funk. I’ll bet that she has jazz on her CD player and pesto and sundried tomatoes in her fridge and davens where no one winces at the long curls tumbling out of her beret or the fact that her flary skirt stops just above her knees.

She reminds me of a discarded earlier version of myself. I’ve since gotten stodgier, and frummer, taken on borer and bug checking, shatnez and tznius . But somehow in the course spiritual climb, I’ve gotten judgmental. It is almost as if someone managed to install a frumkeit checker in my brain which automatically monitors the madreiga of everyone I encounter.

Ooops , here comes the young mother’s reading —several notches below me ( I could have guessed that) , definitely not Bais Yaacov material, wouldn’t pass through the admissions board in Kiryat Sefer…. a joke, a pseudo-orthodox Jew….. right?

I look at her again. Now I see that she isn’t alone. Along with her baby, she has another companion— a middle aged woman with thinning red hair dressed in black pants. Now, I put the pieces together.

The old woman is her mother and the young mother is one of us, a ba’alat teshuva, someone with the spiritual fine tuning to hear the Torah’s call over the media’s din. And she’s upended her identity, possibly changing her name, her address, her friends, to mend the broken links in the chain of tradition.

I imagine her fighting grueling internecine battles to establish a beachhead of kashrut and Shabbat and family purity—a real heroine.

The truth is that I’m making this up, but I’m making a point. I think I can size her up in a instant, but—let’s be real, I can’t. Who can I size up? What do I know of the young mother’s life or anyone else’s life, for that matter?

So why the frumkeit checker?

A few reasons come up. It’s a kick, albeit an unhealthy one. Righteous indignation is a high. There is a perverse thrill in that irresistible “how dare she” feeling that comes from sneering at someone else’s (especially someone younger and cuter) deficiencies.

And the checker also deflects insecurity, by marginalizing anyone different and potentially threatening and it begs a little question that most of us don’t like to ask—what if she is right and I am wrong. Putting her down changes that subject.

That is great, but it’s got a problem. The problem is that this isn’t the Torah’s approach. According to the Torah, when I encounter someone different what I need to determine is what I can learn from them, how I can use the interaction to grow .

As to the young mother I have no clue as to why her tznius is not quite normatively Halachic but I do know that she (and most everyone else in the place ) is a Jew.

Once upon a time, when a Jew met another Jew he’d call out “Sholom Aleichem Reb Yid.” Hello Mr. Jew, but that is mostly gone today, replaced by the frumkeit checker and it’s accessories, judge mentalism and divisiveness.

I need to find my own “Sholom Aleichem For this woman (and for all Jews) —at least in my heart and to delegate the job of other people’s spiritual repair to the Kiruv Rabbis and G-d.

As soon as I get out of this park, I’ve got Pesach cleaning to do and my first stop will be the hametz in my own head. Disabling that nasty frumkeit checker is a good first step.

Originally Published April 2009

An Awesome Place, Time and Soul at the Kotel

On a trip to Eretz Yisroel a few years ago, I had the good fortune to rent an apartment in Kfar David in Mamilla, very close to the Jaffa Gate. I davened almost every Tefillah at the Kotel, except for Shabbos when we were in Ramat Beis Shemesh.

Davening at the Kotel is amazing because it’s a Minyan factory and you get to join together with all types of Jews from the four corners of the world. However, I do find it distracting at Shacharis, between the people collecting Tzedakah and the simultaneous Minyanim going on at a somewhat loud volumne.

On my first Shacharis I went to the Vasikin minyan, which is at sunrise and is the best time to Daven according to the Shulchan Aruch. So here I was, at the best place-the Kotel, at the best time-sunrise, and with a great collection of Jewish souls from around the world. And to top it all off, since it was Vasikin every Minyan starts Shemoneh Esrai at the same time and the entire Kotel would be quiet together.

So I stepped into Shemoneh Esrai anticipating the sweet sound of silence, but unfortunately perfection was not to be found. There was one individual who was davening very loudly well into our Shemoneh Esrai. So there were 300 souls with the opportunity to join in Tefillah at the perfect time at the perfect place, but one person was out of step.

I decided to write three endings to this piece:

1) How does Hashem judge this situation. On the one hand the person was davening to Hashem in sincerity, but at the same time he was disturbing many other people in a situation where total quiet was a possibility.

2) I need to work more on my davening. If I really worked on it, I could daven anywhere without being distracted. Perhaps wanting or needing silence is really a deficiency in my davening.

3) We’re in Golus and even if we’re at the perfect place and the perfect time, it’s our souls that need correcting. That begins with me working on caring about this unknown individual as much before the Shemoneh Esrai as after. He’s a great Yid who made the same journey I did to daven at this awesome place and time. Even if he was mistaken in this one act, I make plenty of mistakes myself and I hope people judge me favorably.

So at the end of the day, maybe it was better that there was no silence. After all place, time and silence are external and davening is an internal act. And becoming a little more forgiving from this incident is probably more important than finding the perfect Place, Time and Soul at the Kotel.

Originally Published February 2010

Let’s Share the Joy

By Jonathan Rosenblum

A recent Israeli study concluded that chareidim are happier than their secular counterparts — and not just by a little bit. Sixty-two percent of the chareidim interviewed expressed a high degree of satisfaction with their lives, as opposed to just 26 percent of the secular Jews. And that is despite the fact that chareidim, on average, have far lower per capita incomes.

The study is just one in a long line of such studies yielding similar results. One team of Israeli researchers explained the life satisfaction differential in terms of the far higher levels of hakaras hatov (gratitude) and optimism among chareidim. A sense of gratitude, as opposed to an attitude of entitlement, is deeply ingrained in chareidi life. It starts first thing in the morning with Modeh Ani, and is reinforced throughout the day in countless ways, such as the recitation of asher yatzar.

Optimism goes hand in hand with the feeling that our lives are guided by a beneficent G-d. The confidence that good may come from even negative experiences comes naturally to chareidim raised from an early age on stories of Nachum Ish Gamzu and Rabi Akiva proclaiming, “Kol d’avid Rachmana l’tava avid — All that Heaven does is for the good.”

The very definition of “one who is happy” as “one who rejoices in his portion” reinforces both optimism and gratitude. The meaning of the mishnah in Avos (4:1) is that the key to happiness is the recognition that Hashem provides each of us with what we need for our mission in life. If that is the case, there is no reason to think that a greater measure of life’s “goodies” would enhance one’s ability to fulfill one’s mission. By the same token, optimism flows from knowing that one has been apportioned what one needs for that mission.

Researchers distinguish between two types of happiness: hedonic and eudaemonic. The latter refers to a general sense of well-being, and, in contrast to hedonic pleasure, is associated with a large number of positive outcomes: longer life expectancy, lower rates of heart disease, reduced chances of Alzheimer’s.

The four elements most identified with high levels of eudaemonia are intrinsic to an Orthodox life. The first is the awareness of a transcendent realm — i.e., of a G-d above. The second is belonging to a community. Communal prayer, shared life rhythms determined by the calendar, large families all provide a strong social support network for chareidim. A third element is the ability to present one’s life story as a coherent whole. That is something much easier for Orthodox Jews to do because they see their lives as guided by G-d. Finally, a sense that one’s life has meaning. There are multiple sources for that meaning and purpose, including Rav Chaim of Volozhin’s extended description in Nefesh HaChaim of how each thought, work, action has the power to open up pipelines of blessing to the world.

FROM THE HIGHER LEVELS of life satisfaction among chareidim, I take away two messages. First, it is not just that the Torah contains many life prescriptions that if followed will make people happier; but also that Jews who define themselves by their commitment to Torah really do take those prescriptions seriously. And as a consequence, their whole approach to life differs radically from that of the world outside our community. In short, the Torah’s message penetrates our inner psyches.

My second takeaway is how much we have to offer our fellow Jews, indeed the world at large. Rabbi Noach Weinberg used to say, “In an insane world, we are the least insane.” By that, he meant (I think) that being an observant Jew does not guarantee a blissful marriage, or that one will be a perfect parent, or that our children will fulfill all our dreams for them. Nothing goes without constant work on our middos, which, according to Rav Chaim Vital, are scarcely mentioned directly in the Torah because they are the precondition for the acceptance of Torah.

Yet we have been given a set of rules by which to live that provide the greatest possibility of human fulfillment because they come from the Creator of human nature, and thus comport with it.

Of late, I find myself thinking that much of modern existence has become completely unmoored from human nature, particularly the imperative of family formation without which humankind cannot survive. My most recent data point is an excellent article by Suzy Weiss at her older sister Bari’s site, in which she interviews young women, one only 19, who have had or are planning operations to ensure that they never bear children. Their reasons vary. One cites her plan to retire early and travel the world unencumbered by responsibilities; another, her lousy parents and wish to avoid their mistakes; a third, the inevitability of some suffering in even the most blessed life; a fourth, a desire not to add to the toll on Mother Earth from too many humans.

While their stories do not alone prove a trend, Weiss brings evidence of the decline in matrimony and childbearing as well. American marriage rates are at an all-time low — 6.5 per thousand. Millennials (born 1981–1996) are the first generation in which a majority (56 percent) are unmarried at this stage in their lives, and more likely to be living with their parents in their twenties and thirties.

In half the states, deaths outnumbered births last year; the preceding year, that was the case in only five states. Nearly two-fifths of Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012) are afraid of having children because of the impending climax apocalypse. A survey of a representative sample of American adults conducted in Michigan found that over one-quarter are childless by choice. In San Francisco, dogs outnumber children.

We are now 60 years into the revolution that set out to release human pleasure to hitherto undreamed of heights by tearing down all traditional norms of courtship and marriage. Yet like most revolutions, it did not quite turn out like it was supposed to. Instead of increasing joy, the revolution has been accompanied by higher rates of mental illness, anxiety, and depression in every subsequent generation.

Men and women have been turned into two suspicious, warring camps, to the benefit of neither. Finding themselves constantly condemned for their toxic masculinity, many males at some point stopped trying. On American college campuses today, women outnumber men by a 60:40 ratio, and are the majority of law and medical students. But women’s very success has not come without a cost, particularly the absence of men with whom to build a life and family.

An article in Quillette a few months back noted that women are hard-wired to look for men who will serve as providers and protectors. But for the most educated and highest-earning cohort of women, those men are increasingly hard to find. And once found, enticing them into marriage is even harder.

The highly sought-after kind of men whom high-powered women view as marriage material are not so concerned with their partner’s earning capacity and have a wide selection of younger women to choose from. They often feel little impulse to commit at all. As a consequence, about 30 percent of the women in the most educated and highest earning cohort will never marry.

Baruch Hashem, we still live in a society in which the desire is marry and raise children is the nearly unanimous default position. I have no doubt that the richness of familial bonds has a great deal to do with our higher level of feelings of well-being.

But that must not remain our secret alone. Chazal tell us that Yaakov Avinu lost 33 years from his life, one year for each word of his complaint about the difficulties he had endured, in response to Pharaoh’s question — “How old are you?” But there are only 25 words in Yaakov’s answer. Rav Noach Weinberg used to explain, Yaakov Avinu was punished as well for the eight words in Pharaoh’s question, which was provoked by his downtrodden countenance.

Let us not repeat that mistake, but rather project joy in all that we do.

Originally published in Mishpacha Magazine, November 3, 2021
http://www.jewishmediaresources.com/2140/let-share-the-joy

A Brief Introduction to the Works of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

By Rabbi Gershon Seif

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch lived over a century ago, and yet his insights into the Torah and his teachings of the Torah’s view of life remain very current.

This brief essay cannot do justice to an explanation of the times within which Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch lived, his battles, and his worldview. Nor can it provide a real appreciation of his writing which is comprised of commentaries on the Torah, Psalms, Siddur, Ethics of the Fathers, as well as Horeb, an explanation of Jewish Law and the meanings behind those laws, and The Nineteen Letters, Hirsch’s first published work, which serves as an amazing digest of all of Hirsch’s future writings and views. In addition, there are eight volumes of collected writings, mostly culled from his years of writing articles to his community on a wide variety of topics. I highly recommend reading the introduction to Horeb to get a more complete picture of what these works are about as well as appreciating Hirsch’s mission.

Hirsch was the leader of a community at a time in history when change was everywhere. The number of observant Jews in Germany was dwindling as the masses were being swept up with the birth of the Reform movement. Hirsch was the brave warrior who battled two simultaneous battles.

While the older generation of his time was to be commended for its staunch adherence to the Torah, nonetheless Hirsch felt that much of that observance was dry and lacking in depth and meaning. He felt that this was a large part of why so many observant youth had abandoned their faith. Hirsch was an inspired, poetic soul. He saw symbolism in every Mitzvah. He saw meaningful, relevant lessons in every page of history, both Biblical and current. He was forever exhorting the observant community to appreciate the depth and beauty that lies within our Torah.

Those same talents were put to use to stem the tide of Reform. Hirsch challenged those who were abandoning Orthodoxy to have another look. He mocked the Reform’s need for “Up-to-date Judaism”. They needed an education in the beauty and depth of the Torah. They needed to be shown that the Torah is authentic. Symbolism of Mitzvos is only meaningful if they are Mitzvos of God, and if those Mitzvos teach us lessons of how to live, not the other way around. At that time, many were discarding most of the Mitzvos, yet claiming to maintain the spirit of the Torah. Hirsch sought to develop a system of understanding the spirit of the Torah directly from the study of the minute specifics of each Mitzvah. He used his linguistic skills to show profound meaning in every nuance of the Torah’s wording. He wrote many articles debating the claims that the Torah was not God-given.

Perhaps the term that appears most often in Hirsch’s writings is that of Torah Im Derech Eretz. Much ink has been spilled in attempts to explain Hirsch’s take on this Midrashic phrase which became his mantra. Derech Eretz (the way of the land) is taken by Hirsch to mean engaging in the world in a way that will uplift the world and all Mankind. Torah with Derech Eretz means that the Torah guides us through all of our experiences in the world and teaches us how to do this. There are many ways that this manifests itself.

Mitzvah observance is one way. When I keep the laws of kashrus, I sanctify my body and imbue it with all the lessons of the symbolism of that Mitzvah. The Laws of Shaatnez do the same in the realm of the clothes that garb my body. When I make a blessing over wine for Kiddush, the wine becomes elevated, as does the one who makes the blessing. When I buy a home and consecrate the home at the Channukas Habayis, I have elevated the home and myself as well. The family is a further extension of this idea.

Building a community based on Godliness is another way. The Torah gives us a whole body of civil law and teaches us about charity and kindness to sanctify our community life. As Hirsch quotes on numerous occasions when he discusses this topic: “Ikar Shechina B’tachtonim” – God’s presence has descended to this world, and it is our task to raise this world up and allow space for God to fill it.

In this same context, history is understood to be God’s conversation with Mankind. It is our task to understand history and be an active part in that conversation. One needs to understand God’s plan for all of Mankind as well as how and why the Jews are to be a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation – A light unto the world.

Earning a livelihood, expressing oneself through the talents of writing, art and music are all part of Derech Eretz. Of course we must always remember that it is Torah Im Derech Eretz. We are all to study Torah daily, and every community has its “Levites” who immerse themselves in the study of Torah completely. But Hirsch was convinced that for the average Jew on the street, his duty was to live a balanced diet of Torah study, communal involvement, and family life.

Hirsch himself attended a secular university as did many people in his community. Without a doubt, before Hirsch came on the scene, the people were already doing so in Germany. It is wrong to assume that it was Hirsch who introduced this notion into Orthodox living. Having been born into such a society and with his understanding of Torah Im Derech Eretz, he had no qualms advising his community to live by that model. Would Hirsch recommend that for today? That’s the subject of a big debate. I believe he would, provided that the students were well equipped to deal with the many challenges that confront a young, impressionable student that might otherwise shake his or her faith and level of observance.

Four Top Misconceptions About Judaism

A while ago I attended an excellent seminar in Kew Garden Hills, NY from Project Inspire, a joint initiative of Aish HaTorah and the OU aimed at creating a grass-roots outreach movement. One of the highlights of the evening was a presentation by Rabbi Chaim Samson from Aish about the four main misconceptions about Judaism than non-frum Jews hava, and the four reassurances that can overcome them. While I can’t recreate the full glory of the presentation in a written summary, the ideas are inspiring enough in any format. For anyone involved professionally or casually in outreach, keeping these four misconceptions in mind is a good starting point. The presentation is also great for ba’alei teshuva.

When he was learning at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem, Rabbi Samson and his friends would often pass backpackers hanging out in the old city. He and his friends had a running that joke that if they approached two backpackers and asked them if they’d like to spend some time in a yeshiva learning about philosophy, mysticism, ethics, how Judaism can inspire our lives, etc., they would get the same answers every time. One of the backpackers would jump at the chance, saying that he had always wanted to learn more about Judaism. The other would demur and make up a litany of excuses. Inevitably the one who is eager to learn about Judaism would be non-Jewish, and interested in comparative religions or an understanding of the development of religions, and the one who wants nothing to do with the religion would be Jewish.

Why this hesitancy? Rabbi Samson points to four misconceptions that lead to this, and four reassurances which can counter them.

1. Judging Others

First, there’s the misconception that religious Jews look down on non-religious Jews, judging them to be less holy or less of a Jew. So therefore why would a non-frum Jew ever want to walk into a room full of frum Jews, thinking that everyone in the room is judging him?

But this idea is completely contrary to Judaism! At the core of Judaism are the concepts of care, concern and love for our fellow Jews. Judaism brought the ideals of charity, kindness and respect to the world. No matter the religious beliefs of another Jew, we have a mitzvah to love and respect them.

As an illustration, Jewish law rules that if someone puts a gun to your head and tells you to kill someone else, you must refuse. This is based on the Talmudic concept that we can’t know whose blood is redder, for only G-d knows who is holier. Taking the example one step further, if you were forced to choose between killing a homeless, alcoholic bum, who never worked a day in his life, and shooting the Chofetz Chayim, one of the biggest Rabbis of all time, Judaism also would say that you cannot choose. We as humans cannot know which of the two people is holier. Each of us has a mission in this world and a potential we can reach, and we cannot know who is closer to reaching it.

Therefore this is a complete misconception, for it could be that the non-frum Jew is truly on a higher level and closer to G-d that his religious brother! The frum person can gain and learn from his less-religious coreligionist, so we can never say that one person is on a lower level than ourselves.

2. Who wants Judaism? It’s a hardship!

There’s the common misconception that Judaism is a hardship, a deprivation of all enjoyment in the world, and that a non-frum person would have to give up all that he enjoys in life. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Judaism is about sucking the marrow out of life and making the most of it. While we have to temper and focus some of our desires, one of the goals of Judaism is getting the most out of this world and achieving the greatest amount of satisfaction.

One of the most important desires that any parent has for a child is that he or she should be happy. It’s the same for G-d. We are His children, and He wants us to get pleasure in this world and the next. Therefore He shows us how real happiness comes from becoming holy. Learning Torah and keeping mitzvot brings the greatest levels of enjoyment a person can have.

Just as a person would never drive a car without reading the instruction manual, we shouldn’t go through life without first reading the instructions. The Torah is our instruction book, our guidebook for getting the most out of life. When a non-frum Jew sees a beautiful Shabbas table with singing, a closeness among family members and true happiness, he or she gets a taste of real enjoyment. The way to do this is by sincerely showing people that Judaism, the Torah and the mitzvot hold the key to happiness.

3. It’s all or nothing.

Upon seeing the multitude of laws and customs in Judaism, many people will throw up their hands and say “It’s too great for me! I’ll never achieve it all, so why should I try?” When they realize they can’t do everything, they opt for nothing.

But it’s a fallacy to assume that we can achieve everything. There is no person on earth who can honestly say that he’s learned every item of Torah, perfected every mitzvot and learned every secret. No one achieves it all.

Instead we all need to take baby steps. We need to take on new mitzvot one at a time. A person may think it’s hypocritical to only take on particular items, but it’s really being human. We’re all constantly struggling to achieve perfection, but that’s human nature. As long as we’re focused on constantly improving and adding to our observance, taking small steps is the way to go.

For example if a jeweler put 613 precious diamonds on a table and told you to grab as many as you could in a few seconds, it’s obviously impossible to grab them all. But that doesn’t mean you should walk away from the table without trying. You need to try to grab as many as you can at once.

By showing other Jews how easy it is to do single mitzvot, such as lighting candles on Friday night, wearing tzitzit, etc., you’ll inspire them to tremendous heights. One mitzvah leads to another. It’s important to get to know a person well enough to be able to recommend particular mitzvot to them, but the most important item is that slow and steady steps helps one win the race.

4. It’s not true!

Often people outside the spectrum of Torah-true Judaism will think of the religion as archaic and backwards, a belief system for people who lack something and who are less intellectual. This probably stems from a misconception based on other religions that require a leap of faith to accept their laws.

Judaism is based on the completely opposite idea. We believe that not only is there a G-d, but that it’s possible to know that He’s out there, that it’s provable. It’s unreasonable to think that G-d would want us to pray to Him without knowing for sure that He’s there. What would be the point of it? How would we ever achieve the heights of spirituality if we weren’t sure our prayers were being heard?

Judaism is one of the only religions that encourages questions and challenges. These are the central goals of Jewish learning and the cores of Judaism. If we can constantly question and challenge, it’s a tremendous testimony to the veracity of Judaism! G-d wouldn’t encourage us to question if it was impossible to find the truth. Our eagerness to question demonstrates our supreme confidence in the truth of our religion.

Based on these four misconceptions and four reassurances, we also have four key methodologies for reaching out to people:

1. Showing care for people, to show that any thoughts that they’re being judged are incorrect.

2. Demonstrating the beauty and pleasure inherent in Judaism.

3. Taking baby steps to observance.

4. Showing that Judaism is based on truth.

These four statements are fundamental to outreach, and fundamental to our performance of our religion.

To end with my own addition, these four statements are also excellent items to work on as we prepare for the divine tribunal on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These are four areas that we need to constantly work on. By strengthening our love for fellow Jews and refraining from judging them, we become more caring and compassionate people. By making sure that our actions radiate the beauty of Judaism, we remind ourselves and those around us how beautiful our religion is and we enhance our performance of the mitvot. Taking baby steps is the best way to adopt any new mitzvah or practice, and doing so is especially appropriate during this month of Elul. By spending this month taking small steps towards our commitments for next year, we demonstrate to G-d and ourselves that we are sincere and that we will really try to achieve them next year, instead of just jumping into them without preparation on Rosh Hashanah. And by demonstrating to the world that truth is at the core of Judaism, we can inspire ourselves, our families and our communities to greater love and observance of Judaism.

Originally Published in October, 2006

The 60 Second Guide to the Book of Bereishes

In the beginning (Bereishes), G-d created the universe, but Adam and Chava and the next 9 generations failed in G-d’s plan of subjugating their physical to their spiritual side.

Noach was the only righteous man of his corrupt generation, which was destroyed by the flood, and he restarted the spiritual mission, but after another 10 generations mankind was corrupt, and failed at fulfilling their mission.

Avraham went out (Lech Lecha) from his home and achieved unparalleled connection to G-d, Who chose Avraham and his children to inherit the land of Israel, and lead humanity towards creation’s goal, and his first wife Hagar was expelled from his home, and his first son Yishmael was circumcised with Avraham.

Three Angels appeared (Vayera) to Avraham to inform him that Sodom would be destroyed, and that his wife Sarah would give birth to his spiritual heir, Yitzchak, who Avraham was prepared to sacrifice for the sake of G-d.

After the life of Sarah (Chayah Sarah) ended, Avraham’s servant Eliezer found a wife, Rivka, for Yitzchak.

The generations (Toldos) of Yitzchak begin with his twin sons Esau and Yaakov, and Yaakov’s spiritual superiority resulted in him getting Esau’s birthright and Yitzchak’s blessings.

Yaakov went out (Vayeitzei) from his birthplace to escape Esau’s wrath, to his uncle Laban, and married his daughter’s Leah and Rachel, their maidservants Zilpah and Bilhah fathered 12 sons and 1 daughter.

Yaakov sent (Vayishlach) messengers to appease Esau who reconciled with him, and his daughter Dina was captured by the people of Shechem, who were subsequently destroyed by Shimon and Levi.

Yaakov settled (Vayeshev) in Canaan, but his sons faked favored son Yosef’s death, sold him, and he was taken to Egypt, purchased by Potiphar whose wife falsely sent him to jail, where he helped the Pharaoh’s butler get released.

At the end (Miketz) of two years after the butler’s release, Pharaoh had 2 dreams interpreted by Yosef, who was made viceroy and prepared for a famine which caused his brothers to come to Egypt, where Yosef deceived them and imprisoned the youngest brother Binyamin.

Yehudah, the brother’s leader approached (Vayigash) Yosef for Binyamin’s release, and Yosef revealed himself to the brothers, and sent for Yaakov, who moved with the 70 members of his family to Goshen in Egypt.

Yaakov lived (Vayechi) in Egypt for 17 years, and before his death he blessed all the brothers, who were reminded by Yosef, before his death, that they would eventually be taken to the Israel as promised by G-d.

A Baal Teshuva’s Father’s Perspectives

By “David Shub”

As the father of two BTs, the first words of advice to parents of other BTs is to say that you cannot make it a power struggle. Not only is it not a power struggle, but it is not a “fight” of who is right and who is wrong.

If someone had told me these words twenty years ago, when my older child was becoming “frum,” I would probably have become angry. Years of adaptation, adoption, and understanding have softened my initial view points.

Twenty years ago, my wife and I did not understand what was happening to our 14 year old child. The child was raised in a rather non-religious household. (I was raised in a secular Jewish household where religion was often mocked as the “opium of the masses,” but Yiddishkeit was an understood value.) We did join a Reform synagogue so that we would be able to give our kids whatever it was that we were not exposed to. When our daughter studied for her bat mitzvah, she displayed such a passion for Judaism that we thought we had a rabbi in the making. After her bat mitzvah she decided she wanted more, so we allowed her to enroll in a local Sunday Jewish High School that was run by an Orthodox principal and Orthodox teachers. The student body was comprised mostly of children from Conservative and Reform households.

The first “shock” to us occurred when I went one Saturday night to pick up our daughter after a Shabbaton. I walked into the basement of the Orthodox shul, and the students and teachers were sitting in a circle, chanting a strange tune. Periodically, during what I later learned was termed a “kumsitz,” individuals would stand and explain what the Shabbaton had meant to him or her. All I saw was “cult.”

As parents, we did not know where to turn. We knew that we could not deny our daughter’s attraction to this life because she would do things behind our backs. We sought advice of our Reform rabbi and congregation. Better she would have contemplated conversion than to adopt the Orthodox lifestyle, they intimated

High school became difficult for us. Our once athletic child now placed Shabbos before a game. She was going across town to spend Shabbos with friends. We made, what to some seemed a ridiculous decision, to Kasher the kitchen. If your child will not eat at your table, the family unit is destroyed. I remember a family member said to me when she learned what we were undertaking, “No one will come between me and my shrimp!” How foolish a statement.

I will pass over the fights, the arguments, the fears…just to say that we adapted ourselves to what we could no longer fight. Our daughter attended Stern College, a place which we felt was not nearly as academic as she was capable of handling. By the time she turned 21, she had met her “beshert” and had married in a very traditional Orthodox ceremony. I cannot say we “loved” the thick veil, the maheatza, the separate dancing, but we adapted.

Now, there are five grandchildren…and they all sit at our dining room table.

Our son, four years younger than his sister, tolerated much of the arguments in the house while his sister was straying from our path. He honored the Kosher kitchen, he honored the lights and phone restrictions on Shabbas, but he went his own way. He also attended the Sunday Jewish High School, but was not swayed by them. He graduated high school and went on to attend a very prestigious four year college. He graduated with high honors, and moved to Brooklyn where he housed with his college friends. He was the only Jewish boy. He worked in the financial area in New York. When he was around 25, he started to become interested in religion. He also met his “beshert,” although he could not believe that she was Orthodox. Unlike his sister, she was dressed in short sleeves and pants. But there is Modern Orthodox, as well as “black hat” Orthodox. They married in an Orthodox ceremony, with a modern touch. Probably because our daughter paved the way, we were less “stressed” by his route. And, of course, Modern Orthodox is easier to comprehend than the more extreme route.

What do we all want for our children? We hope that they will have married the right mate, and that they will have married into a family that loves and supports them. Our children have done that. Now, we have eleven of us at the dining room table, with a recent high chair with the twelfth addition to the family.

What has been the most difficult aspect to understand? For me, it is probably the covering of the head. Why camouflage beautiful hair with beautiful hair? I still have difficulty understanding that nothing, nothing at all interferes with the observance of Shabbos. I am not totally comfortable with the role of the woman in the family. I am baffled by the laws of “sneis.” I am not comfortable with the Yeshiva education where the secular studies program takes a secondary role.

When my oldest grandson tells me, “Grandpa, you should really wear a kippa,” I respond that “I know…” When my six year old grandson asks me why I drive on Shabbos, I try to explain to him that there are all kinds of Jews.

And when my kids come for Shabbos, we leave the lights on, we do not answer the phone, we make cholent, and leave an urn of water on the counter.

My son-in-law asks me, “Dad, are you thinking of becoming frum?” I respond, “No, not yet.”

In the long run, the Reform temple was wrong. It would not have been better if my children had converted. We have adapted, we have adopted, and we try to understand. It is best that they are Jews and that we sit at the table as a family.

Grandpa of Six (in 2006)

First Published February 7, 2006

Tzidkus and Chassidus

It always bothered me that although Noach is favorably called a Tzaddik in the Torah, the adjective, “in his generation”, is taken by one opinion in the Medrash to be a disgrace, by unfavorably comparing him to Avraham, who embodied Chassidus, in his generation.

Another problem I’ve had is that the introduction of Mesillas Yesharim states that Chassidus is the goal, while in Chapter 13, which is the beginning of Chassidus, he says that the majority of the people cannot reach Chassidus. It is enough if they reach Tzidkus. Why did Hashem set up this two tier system of Tzidkus and Chassidus and what should we be aiming for?

Perhaps the answer is that Tzidkus, doing all the mitzvos, is Hashem’s requirement for us to live a proper spiritual life in our physical world. However, the ultimate goal is to develop an everlasting connection to Hashem, and for that we need Chassidus, to go beyond the basic requirements, to show our appreciation and love of Hashem.

Noach is discredited for achieving the admirable level of a Tzaddik because that is not enough, we need to go beyond the basics to develop the deeper connection to Hashem, like Avraham.

We all have a requirement to do all the mitzvos and to try to reach Tzidkus, and most of us will not reach Chassidus in all our ways, as the Mesillas Yesharim has stated. However we all have opportunities on a regular basis to go beyond the basic requirements, to perform acts of Chassidus, to develop a closer connection to Hashem. Whether that is giving up our seat, showing genuine concern for another individual, doing a mitzvah in the best possible way, etc… We have to strive for the Tzidkus of Noach, but also look for opportunities to emulate the Chassidus of the Avos.

Start Shnayim Mikra V’Echod Targum This Week with Bereishis

Chazal (the sages) instituted a weekly spiritual growth mechanism which takes advantage of the power of Torah learning called Shnayim Mikra V’Echod Targum, which is reading the weekly Torah portion twice in Hebrew and its translation once.

The Shulchan Aruch and Mishna Berurah describe different levels of performing Shanyim Mikra, but here’s the easiest way which will enable you to perform it and achieve its spiritual growth benefits:

1) Read out load the Parsha in Hebrew during the week to fulfill the first Hebrew reading.
2) Read out loud the Art Scroll translation in English during the week. This fulfills the translation component.
3) On Shabbos, during the public leining read along out loud quietly to fulfill the second Hebrew reading.

Each week counts as a separate mitzvah so don’t fret if you miss a week.

Check out https://shnayimyomi.org/

Rabbi Jonathan Rietti was kind enough to allow us to post the outline here, but you can purchase the entire outline of the Chumash for the low price of $11.95 for yourself and your family.

Bereshis
#1 Creation of the Universe
#2 Creation of Man
#3 The Snake
#4 Cain Kills Hevel
#5 Ten Generations of Adam
#6 Warning of Global Destruction

#1 Creation of the Universe
1st Day: Heaven-Earth – Light-Darkness
2nd Day: Rakia is split
3rd Day: Land-Sea & Vegetation
4th Day: Sun-Moon & Stars
5th Day: Fish-Birds-Creepies – Blessing to Multiply
6th Day: Animals – Man-Dominate-Tzelem-Blessing to Multiply. 

#2 Creation of Man
* Shabbat – Heavens and Earth complete 
* Rain-Man
* Creation of Adam & Chava
* Located in Gan Eden
* Tree of Life & Tree of Knowledge of Good and Negative
* Four Rivers: 1) Pishon; 2) Gihon; 3) Hidekel (Tigris); 4) Euphrates
* One Command: “Don’t eat from Tree of Knowledge or you will die!”
* Not Good To Be Alone
* No Companion – Adam Names all the animals
* Sleep
* Chava Created
* Naked

#3 The Snake
* Snake was Cunning
* Chava Ate
* Adam Ate
* Eyes opened-Clothes
* “Where Are You?”
* Adam blames Wife – G-d
* Chava blames snake
* The Snake’s Curse: Most cursed, Legless, Eat dust, Hated, Slide.
* Woman’s Curse: Pain in Pregnancy, Childbirth, Child-Raising, Husband will Dominate.
* Man’s Curse: Ground is cursed, Sweat from toil, Death-return to dust
* Man names his wife ‘Chava’
* Expulsion from Gan Eden

#4 Cain Kills Hevel
* Hevel’s offering
* HaShem rejects Cain’s offering
* “Why are you depressed? Pick yourself up and start again!”
* Cain kills Hevel
* Cain is cursed – Wanderer
* Cain’s children: Chanoch & Lemech-City named Chanoch
* Chanoch – Irad – M’huyael – Metusha’el – Lamech marries Adda & Tzilah.
* Adda mothers Yaval & Yuval (Yaval is first nomad, Yuval makes musical instruments).
* Tzilah mothers Tuval Cain – (he invents weapons and metal works)
* Tzilah mothers Naama
* Adam reunites with Chava – Shet

#5 Ten Generations of Adam
1st Gen. Adam 930
2nd Gen. Shet 912
3rd Gen. Enosh 905
4th Gen. Keinan 910
5th Gen. Mehalalel 895
6th Gen. Yered 962
7th Gen. Chanoch 365
8th Gen. Metushelach 969
9th Gen. Lemech 777
10th Gen. Noach-Shem-Cham-Yafet

#6 Warning of Global Destruction
* Population explosion
* Fallen Angels take women
* 120 year life limit
* Titans
* Man’s entire agenda was wickedness all day!
* Decree to destroy entire world except Noach

Sukkos – The Jews Inner Self – Bilvavi Sukkos Talks Download

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download this and a number of other Drashos on Sukkos

Sukkah and the Four Species – The Dual Natures of Man

On Sukkos, we have two mitzvos: to sit in the sukkah, and to shake the Four Species. These two mitzvos represent the two sides of man. The Four Species, which we shake around and move, represent how man is always in movement. We are full of various retzonos (desires), and all of these desires are a kind of movement. The mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah represents a totally different side to us. In a sukkah, we don’t move; we sit there.

Hashem is mainly called by two names. The lower name of Hashem is “adonoy” – He is our adon, our master. This refers to how we serve him with the mitzvos. The higher name of Hashem is the four-letter name of havayah, and this refers to the simple recognition of His existence. The two names of Hashem reflect the two sides of our life’s mission. On one hand, we “move” constantly by doing all the mitzvos. This is how relate to Hashem as our Master, Whom we serve; that He is adonoy. But the inner essence to our life is that we recognize his existence and integrate our own existence as a part of Hashem. This is how we relate to Hashem with his higher name, havayah. It is the deeper part of our life.

The fact that Hashem exists is not just a fact about life, but it is something which we can connect ourselves to. The mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah is entirely about this concept – to sit in Hashem’s Presence, with no need to move around, and instead to connect to Hashem’s Endlessness.

In this discussion, the intention is not merely to say a nice dvar Torah for Sukkos, but rather, to define the very essence of Sukkos: accessing our innermost point of our self – our point of non-movement – when we integrate with Hashem. It is also a concept that has ramifications to our entire life. It is the way how we can prepare for the future, when we will sit in the Sukkah made of the leviathan skin.

The depth of our Avodah on Sukkos is to combine the two sides of mankind and integrate them together: the Four Species, which represents our mitzvos\movement, and the mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah, which represents our recognition of Hashem\non-movement.

Our Actual Essence Vs. The Outer Layers of the Self

We will try to explain this as much as Hashem allows us to understand it.

The most complicating thing in the world is our self. Anything else we recognize are all superficial realities – such as our house, the block we live on, the country we live in, even the world; it’s all an external, superficial kind of recognition. If this is all a person knows of, then he lives a superficial kind of existence – he lives on the outside world. He is thinking all the time about things that are outside of himself. The clothing we wear is not either a part of who we are.

When a person begins to look for his inner essence, he is apt to think that he “is” what he “does.” He identifies himself based on his actions, his emotions, and his thoughts.

For example, a person has an affinity to do chessed (kindness), so he thinks of himself as a “good person” since he sees that he is drawn towards doing good things. When he has to reprimand his children sometimes, he feels horrible inside, because now he thinks he’s a “bad person” by having to act cruel to them.

If a person is deeper, he knows that there is more to himself than the actions he does. He is aware of his thoughts – and he identifies himself based on what’s going on in his mind. Yet this is erroneous as well, because a person is not his thoughts either.

Our actions, our emotions, and our thoughts are just outer layers that cover over our essence. They are like garments that clothe our soul.[1] But there is more to who we are than our actions, emotions, and thoughts.

How can a person identify who he really is?

To be frank, there is almost no one who truly knows who he is, and there is almost no one as well who really recognizes Hashem. If a person doesn’t know he really is, he can’t either recognize Hashem!

There are many people who are searching to find Hashem. But, it is written “From my flesh I see G-d”[2]; in other words, we need to know who we are in order to be able to recognize Hashem.

Only By Recognizing Our Self Can We Recognize Hashem

We will expand more upon these words, because it is a very fundamental concept which needs to be understood well.

There is no person who has no self-knowledge of himself whatsoever; all of us know ourselves to a certain extent, besides for those who have become mentally ill (may G-d have mercy upon them). But the way we understand ourselves is superficial: we recognize ourselves based on the outer parts of our self, such as our actions, our conversations, our emotions, and our thoughts. These are outer layers to our soul – garments that cover over our actual soul – and therefore these factors are not a real way to identify ourselves.

When a person only has a superficial understanding of himself, he will in turn have a superficial relationship towards G-d. It is written, “From my flesh, I see G-d”, so if a person doesn’t properly recognize his own “flesh”, his real self, he won’t come to really identify Hashem either. As a result, he will never form a deep bond with the Creator, because he doesn’t really conceptualize the Creator’s existence in the first place.

We can compare this to a person who wishes to grind flour but he has no home appliance to grind it with. The “I” in a person is a tool for one to recognize the Creator of the World, because “The Holy One and Yisrael are one”. If someone recognizes his own Yisrael, the Jew inside himself – his beginning, for Yisrael is called “the beginning” (see Rashi Beraishis 1:1), then he can come to recognize the beginning of his own beginning, which is the Creator; the Ultimate Beginning. But if a person never got to his own beginning, and he only knows of branches from his beginning – his various abilities – then not only is he missing a bond with the Creator, but he is missing his own Jew within. The essence of the Jew is that he is a Yisrael; thus, if a Jew does not recognize that he is Yisrael deep down in his soul, he is missing self-recognition.

How indeed can a Jew attain self-recognition? It is not written in any sefer\book in the entire world. A book is an outer entity, and thus it impossible for the actual “I” to be described in any book! If the “I” could be written about in a book, that would be releasing the “I” from its inner chamber out into the open world, and that itself is impossible.

The only one who can reveal the “I” is Hashem Himself. “I am Hashem your G-d.” The word anochi (I) stands for the words ana nafshai kesavis yehavis, “I Myself can write this.”[3] In other words, the only one who can write about the “I” is Hashem. Hashem has given us the tool in how we can recognize Him: the more we recognize our self, the more we recognize Him. If we have only a superficial self-recognition, then our recognition of Hashem will also be superficial. If we recognize what our essence is, then we will be able to recognize the essence of Hashem.

The Torah begins with the letter beis, in the word Beraishis. The Ten Commandments began with the letter aleph, in the word “Anochi.” The depth of this is that Hashem reveals Himself in the letter Aleph, which is the beginning letter. If we come to our letter “aleph” in our soul – our point of beginning – then we will be able to come to the total level of Aleph, the Absolute One, the Absolute Beginning – the One who existed, exists and will always exist: the Creator. But if man doesn’t recognize who he is, then he won’t be able to recognize his Creator.

What is the most hidden thing in Creation? Hashem’s Name is never pronounced. Whenever the Name of Havayah is used in the Torah, we read it as “Adonoy.” The actual “I” of Hashem, even when it is written, is never read. And when we do read a name of Hashem, it is not written there. This is not only a fact about reading Torah. It a perspective to have on Creation, a perception of our soul.

There in inner kind of writing of our soul which cannot be read. If we could read it, we would be in the state of Moshiach’s times, which we are not in right now. When we all will be able to pronounce the Name of Havayah, Moshiach will come. Nowadays, only a few individuals are allowed to use the Name of Havayah. Our Avodah is for us to reach the Name of Havayah of Hashem, which we do not currently recognize.

We usually relate to Hashem with the fact that we must do the mitzvos He commanded us with. However, there is an inner aspect to our relationship towards Hashem which we start out being unaware of, and we must discover it. It is the fact that we are not just servants of our Master, but rather, our whole existence is connected with Him.

That is the difference between the lower name of Hashem, Adonoy, and the higher name of Hashem, which is Havayah. The lower name, Adonoy, represents how we must do the mitzvos, for He is our Master. The name of Adonoy implies that our relationship with Him is dependent on the actions we do. The higher name, Havayah, reflects that we are all integrated with Hashem, regardless of what we do or not, because the connection is intrinsic. “A Jew who sins is still a Jew.”

The point of havayah – our true existence, in which we are integrated with Hashem – is the point that is hidden away deep in the soul. When we do the mitzvos, it builds the outer layers of our soul, but it doesn’t build the point of havayah in the soul.

When a person performs a mitzvah, he is doing an action. The root of all action is the power of ratzon – the will. The will represents man’s nature to always be in movement; ratzon comes from the word ratz, to “run”, to move. If a person considers his ratzon to be the deepest part of himself, he identifies himself with the power of movement, of action. He is at the level of the Four Species, which move in all six directions of the world – but he hasn’t yet gotten to his own self. He hasn’t yet gotten to the “Sukkah” inside himself – to the “Yisrael” inside him, his true “I.”

With a poor sense of self-recognition, even a person sitting in the Sukkah doesn’t grasp what the concept of Sukkah is. Although it appears as if he’s reached the point of non-movement, because he’s sitting in the Sukkah – he’s only there physically, but he doesn’t see himself as being in the tzeila d’meheimenusa, the “shadow of faith” that the Sukkah is. He’s doing all the mitzvos for His Master, but he hasn’t yet reached emunah – the sukkah that is all about emunah, recognizing Hashem’s existence.

Thus, there are essentially two stages in our bond with Hashem: first we become His loyal servants by doing all his mitzvos. At a later stage in life, we must eventually enter the second, inner stage, which is to recognize Him with our emunah. These two stages are represented by two great events that our people went through: the exodus of Egypt and the Giving of the Torah. By the exodus, we were released from Pharoah’s servitude and now we became servants of Hashem. By Sinai, Hashem revealed Himself with the giving of the Torah, and now we reached a new level: we recognized Hashem.

When Hashem revealed Himself by the Torah, He did not reveal Himself with His lower name, Adonoy, but rather with His higher name, Havayah. This shows us that the Torah is essentially the higher name of Hashem, Havayah.

For this reason, we never really begin to learn the actual Torah, because we are not connected to Havayah. And surely, we never finish it, for that reason. “The Torah of Hashem is wholesome, it settles the soul.” The Baal Shem Tov said that the Torah is wholesome and perfect because no one has ever begun to learn it and complete it. What is the meaning of his statement? No one ever begun to learn the Torah?! The meaning is that the Torah throughout the generations until the end of time is not yet the actual Name of Hashem to us, and this is the deep reason why the Name of Hashem is not allowed to be pronounced.

When a person recognizes his real essence, he merits to truly learn the Torah – the essence of the Torah. Through his learning, he can then come to recognize Hashem – not just the actions and middos of Hashem, but an actual recognition of Hashem Himself, so to speak, in the same way that he recognizes his own essence.

Only a person who feels his own essence can come to feel the reality of Hashem. Of course, anyone will claim that he can feel himself as existing, not just a Jew, but any non-Jew as well, and even animals, can feel they exist. But as we explained, most people never arrive at true self-recognition, and they only are aware of the outer layers to their existence.

Summary

To summarize: If we want to define the purpose of Creation, the definition is clear. The purpose of Creation is to recognize the reality of Hashem. The way to get there is through self-recognition. The self is the point in a person which never ceases, for Hashem and Yisrael are one; just as Hashem is eternal, so is a soul of Yisrael eternal. If a person views himself as an entity that can cease, then in turn he views his bond with Hashem with the same superficial perspective.

The soul of a Jew is a “piece of G-d from above”, and therefore, one can come to recognize Hashem through the recognition of himself. A Jew is the only nation on this world which is capable of feeling the inner self and thereby sense the Creator with just as much clarity.

This is the lesson of Sukkos: we have two mitzvos – to sit in the Sukkah and to shake the Four Species. We have both of these mitzvos because we are meant to integrate both of the lessons they represent together. The Four Species represents how we must move to do all the mitzvos, the actions through which we serve our Master with. The mitzvos are the way for us to get through to our heart and reveal it. “The heart is pulled after the actions.”[4]

What is it that we must reveal from our heart? It is not limited to the great exalted feelings of love and fear of Hashem. It is not about becoming awe-struck from elation. It is about reaching our essence, our “I.” The point of doing all the mitzvos is so that we can use all these actions to reach our I” and reveal it. In this way, we integrate Adonoy with Havayah.

The “I” can be reached in several ways. There is way to reach it directly, but only the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur knew the secret of how to do it. The other way is the way which we generally take, and that is through doing all the mitzvos so that we can get through to our essence and recognize the Creator as a result. But when we do the mitzvos, the focus should not be on the actions, but rather on the goal, which is to come to our essence.

Reaching Our Point of Menuchah\Serenity

Understandably, the words here are very deep, but they are the secret about life.

All of us want grow higher and elevate ourselves. Yet, this is still a superficial approach. It’s superficial because life is not just about feeling more elated. Elation is still a kind of movement, and as we explained, movement is only the outer layer of our existence. For this reason, there is almost no one who reaches what he wants in life, because a person keeps evading his main goal, in spite of his many aspirations to grow and become more elated in spirituality.

There is a well-known parable that illustrates this message. A man dreams that there is buried treasure underneath the bridge of his town, while in reality, there is buried treasure sitting underneath his house all along.

The lesson we can learn from this is that even when a person seeks spirituality, he might very be well be running away from his real “treasure” all along. For example, if he thinks that Hashem is in Heaven, while he is merely on this lowly earth, then all he will know of is the mitzvos, and his entire life will be limited to performing superficial actions. The truth is that Hashem is found everywhere (Zohar III 225a) – He is found inside a person! Our Avodah is to uncover our true existence, and then we will find Hashem there.

Of course, it will require a lot of “movements” to get to that inner place in ourselves, but we must at least aspire to reach this point of serenity (menucha). When a person reaches menuchah in himself, Hashem is truly revealed, because menuchah represents Shabbos, the point of non-movement and a cessation from all labor. One who attains menuchah on this world can recognize the Creator, and he attains it no less than how all of us will eventually recognize Hashem in the future. But if someone never reaches the point of menuchah in himself, the “Shabbos” in himself – he will not come to the recognition of the One who created the world.

[1] See Tanya chapter 4, and Tzidkas Hatzaddik 263.

[2] Iyov 19: 26

[3] Yalkut Shimeoni: Shemos 20: 226

[4] Sefer HaChinuch, 16

Yom Kippur Takeaway – Forgiving Others When We’re Slighted

I was Googling for a web-based description of the origins of Avinu Malkeinu when I came across Rabbi Micha Berger’s great discussion of the trait of ma’avir al midosav – forgiving others when we are slighted:

Rabbi Eliezer once went before the ark [as chazan on a fast day enacted because of a drought] and recited twenty-four berakhos and was not answered. Rabbi Aqiva went [as chazan] after him and said, “Avinu malkeinu — our Father, our King, we have no king other than You! Our Father, our King – for Your sake have compassion for us!” and it started raining. “The rabbis started speaking negatively [about Rabbi Eliezer]. A Heavenly voice emerged and declared, “It is not because this one [Rabbi Akiva] is greater than that one [Rabbi Eliezer], but because this one is ma’avir al midosav and this one is not ma’avir al midosav.” – Ta’anis 25b

Rav Yisrael Salanter (Or Yisrael #28) elaborates. If being a ma’avir al midosav is so important, wouldn’t that mean that Rabbi Aqiva was greater than Rabbi Eliezer after all? Rather, there are two equally valid approaches to serving Hashem. Rabbi Aqiva, being from Beis Hillel, was ma’avir al midosav. Rabbi Eliezer was a member of Beis Shammai (Tosafos Shabbos 130b), and therefore insisted upon strict justice (Shabbos 31a). Both approaches are equally valid, and until the ruling that we are to follow Beis Hillel, both Rabbi Aqiva’s and Rabbi Eliezer’s approaches were equal paths to holiness. However, at a time when we can’t withstand the scrutiny of strict justice, it’s Rabbi Aqiva’s approach that is more appropriate.

Rabbi Akiva, the most prominent Baal Teshuva of all time, teaches us the lesson that rings in our ears throughout all of Yom Kippur – we need to favor forgiveness over demands for justice. We start Kol Nidre by offering forgiveness for all Jews (BT, FFB and Non-Frum) as we join together in a day of prayer. We end with a resounding Avinu Malkenu asking Hashem to forgive us, even though by strict justice – we don’t really deserve it.

Throughout YK, Rabbi Welcher stressed the need for understanding and unity. So, it was very appropriate and moving that during Neilah, five non-religious Jews walked into the Shul. A few who has multiple body piercings came towards my section and they were quickly given Art Scroll Machzorim. As we screamed for mercy they joined us, and nobody gave them a second look. They were Jews who had summed up the awesome courage to walk into an Orthodox Shul and join their brothers in prayer. We welcomed them with open arms.

The message of forgiveness and understanding is the message that Baalei Teshuva know all so well. One of the most recurrent themes we see here on Beyond Teshuva is that BTs often feel like they don’t fit in. We plead to our fellow Frum Jews: Please treat us with mercy. Please don’t judge us. Please don’t make us feel small. Please accept us as who we are and where we want to go.

Since we know this teaching all so well, we are well-positioned to teach it by example, as we show forgiveness and understanding to our non-frum friends and relatives, our talk-in-shul neighbors and all the Jews greater than us in Torah, Tefillah or Gemillas Chasadim. It’s hardest to live this teaching when we’re slighted and put upon, but that was the greatness of our teacher Rabbi Akiva – and that is the greatness we can each achieve as we internalize this message.

Originally published October 2006

Rebbetzin Heller Gottlieb on Approaching the Viduy on Yom Kippur

Adapted from a newsletter article by Rebbetzin Heller Gottlieb

Keep in mind that Hashem accepts you with all of your faults and broken pieces, you needn’t act as if they don’t exist.

Review the viduy before Yom Kippur in the machzor.

Don’t fall into any of the usual traps when you read the list of potential sins that you may have done:
1. What a great list. It’s even alphabetical. How interesting. I think I did everything.
2. I am doomed. I think I’ll go out for pizza. This is too heavy.
3. My life is a mess. It can’t be fixed. No one who had a childhood like mine will ever be clean on the inside.
4. This is extreme. I’m basically a good person. What’s all this breast-beating good for?
5. I hate myself.

Instead, come to grips with the reality of imperfection. If you’re human, you’re imperfect. You have the chance now to open yourself up to greater and higher movement towards being the person you want to be. Every breath you take is a gift from the One who wants to (and can!) understand you totally. Read the list with the same sort of feeling you would have if you were discussing a heartbreaking issue with your therapist. You want to change, that’s why you’re there.

There is one critical difference. Your therapist can only help you hear yourself. Hashem can help you discover a self that you may never have encountered (or may have thought was lost). If you open yourself even a little bit, He will open His Heart to you beyond your greatest hope.

The Avodah of Rosh HaShanah

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download this and a number of other Drashos on Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur

Rosh HaShannah – Avodah of Ben & Eved

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Malchiyus – Declaring Hashem’s sovereignty

Hashem says on Rosh HaShanah, “Declare before Me malchiyus, zichronos, and shofaros; declare malchiyus so that I should rule over you.”[1]

The truth is that in all of the davening on Rosh HaShanah, the only time we mention “zichronos” and “shofaros” is in the tefillah of Mussaf. Throughout all of the tefillos, however, we mention malchiyus. This shows us that malchiyus is the main aspect which we mention on Rosh HaShanah.

“There is no king without a nation.”[2] In order for Hashem to be King on us, so to speak, we need to declare ourselves as His servants. In other words, the avodah we have on Rosh Hashanah is not just to declare Hashem as our King. It is mainly that we become His servants.

Now that we have clarified that the main avodah on Rosh Hashanah is to accept our servitude to Hashem, we must know what it means to be an eved, a servant. If we truly know what it means to be an “eved”, we can understand our mission on this day.

“Eved” – Derogatory or Praiseworthy?

The Gemara[3] says that when we do Hashem’s will, we are called a ben (son) of Hashem, and when we don’t do His will, we are called eved\servant. It seems from this statement that eved is a derogatory title, something we are called when we don’t do Hashem’s will.

However, we find that Moshe Rabbeinu is given the unique title “eved” of Hashem. He is also called “eved ne’eman” – “trustworthy servant of Hashem”.

This is a paradox. Is eved a derogatory title, or is it a praiseworthy title?!

Three Levels

It depends, because there are two implications of the word “eved.”

One person serves his king, not because he loves him, but because he needs the king to fulfill his needs. He’s serving the king all for himself. An eved like this is the negative implication of eved, because all his service to the King is for his own benefit.
There is a higher implication of eved, and that is when the servant doesn’t serve Hashem for his own personal interests, but because he’s devoted entirely to the king. This is the deeper meaning behind why “whatever a servant acquires, his master acquires it” – it is because ideally, a servant has no personal life of his own, and his whole life is devotes to his master. This is the desirable level of eved – and one who acts like this fulfills the purpose of Creation. This was the kind of eved that Moshe Rabbeinu was. It is the meaning behind the Mishnah in Avos, “Do not be like servants who serve their master in order to receive reward, rather, be like servants who serve their master not to get a reward.”
We see from the above that it’s possible for a person to act selflessly and be considered “eved”, and that one doesn’t have to on the level of “ben” in order to reach this. Ben is when a person goes even beyond that and serves the king out of his love.

A person needs to have selfless devotion to Hashem, and this is “eved.” With this as well, a person needs to have serve Hashem out of a love for Him, and this is called “ben.” If so, we have altogether three levels:

The lower kind of eved, one who serves Hashem only because he needs Him.
The higher kind of eved, one who serves Hashem because he lives his life for Him.
Ben, which is when one serves Hashem out of a love for Him.
Practical Guidance for Utilizing Rosh Hashanah

If we want to prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashanah and declare Him as King over us – and that we become His servants – we must understand that if we feel as if we are forced into serving Him, we are being the first kind of eved, and then the whole purpose of Rosh Hashanah will be lost. Our main task on Rosh Hashanah we must do is to be like the second kind of eved: that our whole lives should be about one goal alone – serving Hashem. This should be why we live our life, and we shouldn’t have any other personal desires. This is the inner meaning behind all of our avodah on Rosh Hashanah.

It is not enough just to daven slowly and with concentration on Rosh Hashanah. Our main job on this day is to come to a decision that we will change our lives and live only for Hashem – and not for ourselves.

This job obligates us to make a deep internal clarification. We must know exactly what we want to get out of our life, and to examine our deeds to see if they are line with the goal we are striving for. If one truly decides to live a life of serving Hashem, he has to see if all that he does 24\7 is reflecting this.

How We Can Let Rosh Hashanah Affect Us For The Whole Year

If a person accepts upon himself to become a true eved of Hashem, then Rosh Hashanah must not end for him on the third day of Tishrei; Rosh Hashanah has to carry over into the rest of the year as well, until the next Rosh Hashanah! If a person examines his situation and finds that on Purim and Pesach he doesn’t think about Hashem, it must be that he did not have a good Rosh Hashanah. It shows that he did not accept upon himself on Rosh Hashanah to become an eved of Hashem.

May Hashem merit us that we all accept His sovereignty on Rosh Hashanah, and that we should become His true servants – and through this, we can merit to have the light of Rosh Hashanah affect us the whole year round.

[1] Rosh HaShanah 16b

[2] Kad HaKemach, Rosh HaShanah 70a

[3] Bava Basra 10a

Offering Up Our Egos on the Altar of Elul

I was recently reminded of an incident that happened over 30 years ago. In the English-speaking beis midrash where I learned, smoking was strictly forbidden. The Israelis who davened with us respected the rule even with, according to their cultural predisposition, they couldn’t quite understand it.

On one occasion, a young Israeli new the community lit up right after davening. I was standing near by and asked him politely to put out his cigarette. He waved me away without breaking his conversation. I asked him again, this time more forcefully. This time he complied, extinguishing his cigarette on my sleeve. The other Israeli with whom he had been speaking was considerably more outraged than I was. The young man shrugged his shoulders and walked away with a chuckle.

I didn’t see this young fellow often, but on the infrequent occasions I did I made a point of setting my face into the fiercest scowl I could manage.

It must have been nearly a year later, possibly in Elul, although I can’t say for sure. I was walking along one Shabbos afternoon and spotted the young man coming toward me. As I prepared to scowl at him, I suddenly asked myself what I hoped to accomplish. Surprising myself as much as him, I relaxed my expression and said, “Gut Shabbos.” I don’t remember whether or not he answered me.

Less than a week later there was a knock on my door. Guess who? Yes, it was the same young man holding a stack of seforim in his hands. He offered them to me, and I gave him a quizzical look. He said he wanted to ask forgiveness for the incident with the cigarette.

How little effort it required to restore shalom! How great a reward for so tiny an investment. And yet, how difficult was it for me to make the decision to turn my scowl into words of greeting.

Perhaps, if we thought more about how much we can accomplish through such small expenditures of effort, we would find it easier to set aside our petty egos and choose to do what’s right.

Please visit Rabbi Goldson’s website at www.yonasongoldson.com.
Originally Posted Aug 28, 2008

Pondering The Meaning Of Life

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Talks on Elul

Hashem Helps Us When We Connect Our Actions With Him

ומגן ומושיע עוזר מלך Hashem is our עוזר ,our ultimate Helper.

Hashem is our true Helper. When a person helps another, the one receiving the help is considered the main person. But when Hashem helps us, we realize that Hashem is the main one, and we are just secondary. As it is written, “My help comes from Hashem.”.

Chazal say that our evil inclination gets stronger every day, and if not for Hashem, we cannot overcome it (Sukkah 52a). On a deeper note, our every action needs Hashem’s help. How indeed does Hashem help us? Whenever we do an action, it is considered alive only if we put Hashem into the equation. Although we use our power of bechirah to do good actions, our actions can only be considered ‘alive’ when we realize how we need Hashem to help us, and this gives life to the actions we do. A person might do many good deeds, but inwardly, he can be dead, because there is no life-source to his actions; Hashem is missing from the equation. Once we put Hashem into what we do, Hashem is providing life to our actions, and then the actions we do are alive.

Life Vs. Imagination

A person needs to live an inner kind of life, in which all that he does is inwardly connected to Hashem. We must know what it means to really live life, and what it means to merely imagine what a good life is – to see the differentiation between these two. To illustrate, a child plays a game and is having a good time; he thinks that this is his life. As he begins to get older, he realizes that all his fun was the world of imagination, and that this is not life.

The life which we see in front of us, on this world, is all a world of imagination! In order to really know what our life is, we have to merit from Hashem that He open our hearts to understand what it really is. If our heart hasn’t been opened a little, we do not understand what “life” is at all. We might know what death is, but we won’t know what “life” is.

Our existence is that we are a soul clothed by a body. Therefore, we initially perceive life from the perspective of our body, even if we learn Torah and mitzvos; from the perspective of the body, we have an erroneous perception of what life is about. We have to daven to Hashem that He should open our heart (as we daven in the end of Shemoneh Esrei, “Open my heart to Your Torah”) in order to understand what life really is.

We should look back at out past and see that whatever we thought until now as “life” is not really life, just imagination. Most people are not experiencing the true meaning of life, even if they live for 70 or 80 years. People often do not even experience one moment of true life on this world!

Our neshamah in us knows what real life is. Even when we ask Hashem for life, we do not always know what it is. The meaning of life is really a secret; only our neshamah knows what it is. Sometimes we receive sparks of understanding of what the meaning of life is. But to actually arrive at a total recognition of what life is, we need to have our hearts opened.

During Elul, what are people asking Hashem for? People have all kinds of things they want and ask Hashem for a whole list of things. The more a person asks for various things, the more it shows that he doesn’t understand what life is. We are all asking Hashem for life! In Shemoneh Esrei of Rosh HaShanah, we daven Zochreinu L’Chaim, Melech Chofetz B’Chaim, Kosveinu B’Sefer HaChaim…we keep asking for life, because that is really our central request in Elul. As for our personal requests that we ask of Hashem, most of these requests are not for life itself, but rather about various details that branch out from our life, such as parnassah, etc. The main request which we ask for in Shemoneh Esrei is that we should have life!

Since we are young, we think that we know we are alive. But the truth is that most people don’t even realize what it means to really be alive! People ask Hashem that they be granted life only because they don’t want to die. But as for life itself, to know what it means to be alive – people often do not know what it is. We don’t want Hashem to take away our life, as we daven in the prayer of Shema Koleinu. But what is our life to begin with? What is the life that we are asking for more of? Do we realize the true meaning of what it means to be alive…?

If our hearts begin to become a little opened, we can realize that the kind of life we think we have been living until now is really the world of imagination. Compare this to a child. A child’s perspective on life is not life – it is imagination. It is hard to verbally express this concept in words. The point is that your heart needs to become opened, and then you will know what is being discussed here.

In Elul, we ask for life. We must realize that this world we see in front of us is all imagination! Ever since Adam ate from the Eitz HaDaas, this world became like one big imaginary kind of existence. This is the depth behind the curse of “death” that came to the world – it was a “death” to the ideal state of mankind. So when we ask for life in Elul, the depth of our request is that we are asking Hashem that we be granted the power to leave our imagination, and instead taste of the true life – the Eitz HaChaim, the source of true life.

It is not only a person who is immersed in physical interests who is living in imagination. Even a person learning Torah and doing mitzvos, who is not entrenched in physical pursuit, can also be living in imagination. We see from this from the fact that we have all kinds of dreams at night.

When we reveal the inner essence of our heart, we will then understand what the true meaning of life is, and then we will be able to truly have d’veykus with the Creator.

Two Kinds of Joy

Rabbi Dessler – Strive for Truth 6 – Re’ei

King Shelomo prayed: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; give me my allotted bread. If I am satisfied, I might deny and say ‘Who is God?’ If I am poor, I might steal and take the name of my God [in vain].”

Troubles arouse a person and turn him towards God. If all his needs are satisfied, he may imagine that he can do without God, and from that to denial is not very far. It is clear that human beings have a strong tendency to deny God. If a person whose needs have been satisfied for the moment has this tendency, how much more so a rich man who thinks his prosperity is guaranteed far into the future.

Because this danger was so clear to him, Shelomo HaMelech prayed that he would not have riches nor even the complete satisfaction of his physical needs, but only the essential minimum: “my allotted bread.” The implication is that he would have much preferred to be poor and lack even essentials, were it not that poverty has its own dangers. He might be tempted to steal and lie, and so eventually also come to deny God by taking a false oath.

SUKKA OF PEACE
“You shall make a festival of Sukkot…when you gather your harvest…”2 Everyone is happy when the harvest is in and they feel that their livelihood for the year is assured. The danger of denying God is self-evident. To obviate this danger, the Torah commands us to “dwell in sukkot for seven days.”‘ This is to teach us that safety is not in material things, but in our closeness to God. Our shelter is not the roof, but God’s sukka of peace. We realize that true satisfaction comes only from banishing material ambitions from our hearts and filling our lives with avodat Hashem.4

REJOICING IN THE FESTIVAL
Instead of rejoicing in the harvest, the Torah tells us to “rejoice in your festival.”‘ This means spiritual joy, as another verse says, “You shall rejoice before God, your God.” The Talmud learns from this verse—”and you shall rejoice in your festival”—that one is not allowed to celebrate a marriage during a festival: “Rejoice in your festival and not in your wife.”‘ It is all the more obvious that our joy should not be in our harvest or in our sense of physical security. The joy of the festival is spiritual joy. It is joy in the heartfelt fulfillment that comes from transcending material desires and putting in their place the service of Hashem.

But how is it possible to change one’s joy from joy in the material to joy in the spiritual? There is only one way in which to do this, which we shall now explain.

THE FIELD OF THE HEART
My rebbe told me this in the name of the Vilna Gaon, of blessed memory. It is impossible to sow a field unless it has first been plowed. Similarly, the blockage in our heart—timtum ha-lev prevents spiritual feelings from penetrating it. The hard peel surrounding the heart must first be pierced. Only then can spiritual insights be sown, and only then can fruit be expected to grow, in theform of changed attitudes.

How can the hard soil of the heart be plowed? With strong emotional upheaval. This can come from sudden disaster or from great joy. When a person is in a state of great excitement, for whatever reason, his heart opens. A person can now impress on it whatever he likes. He can say to himself: Now is my chance! The hard casing of my heart has been broken open. Quick! I must sow in it what I want.

The origin of the great joy may have been nothing more than a good harvest. But now that the heart is excited and aroused, its habitual blockage is removed. This provides the opportunity to show one’s heart that the joy of spiritual success far exceeds the joy of material success. Here is the chance to transform one’s joy into another, higher level of joy.

The water-drawing ceremony which took place during the nights of the Sukkot festival was one of the highlights of the service in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. “One who has never seen the water-drawing ceremony in the Holy Temple has never seen joy in his life.”8 This ceremony and the water libation—nissuch ha-mayim—that followed it were in essence a prayer for rain for the coming year. But our Rabbis transformed it into a celebration of the spirit. “Why is it called ‘the joy of the water-drawing’? Because from it they used to draw the holy spirit.”‘ Prophets used to draw their inspiration from this dramatic and joy-inspiring ceremony.”‘

So we see what the Torah meant by “Make a festival…when you gather…”” Use the physical joy of gathering the harvest as a springboard to reach spiritual joy. Then your joy will be complete. You will experience the supreme happiness of transforming the lower into the higher — the darkness of denial into the great light of faith in God.

HASSIDIC CUSTOMS
With this in mind, we can now understand the custom prevalent among Hassidim to arousc joy and good humor through external means, such as the judicious use of liquor. They use joyous occasions to speak words of Torah and serving Hashem. Whoever instituted this obviously understood the secret of opening the heart and sowing seeds of Torah and chessed — as we discussed above.

It is wonderful to see how all Jewish customs, in every section of Jewry, have the same goal—to further Torah and deepen our avodat Hasbem.

notes
1 Mishlei 30:8-9.
2 Devarim 16:13.
3 Vayikra 23:42.
4 See parasbat Shoftim, end.
5 Devarim 16:14.
6 Vayikra 23:40.
7 Mo`ed Ratan 8b.
8 Sukka 51a.
9 Bereshit Rabba 70:8.
10 Yerushalmi Sukka 5:1.
11 See note 2, above.

What Does G-d Want From Us?

There is a verse in this week’s Parsha, that the Mesillas Yesharim, The Path of the Just, says is the basis of our Avodas Hashem, our service of Hashem.

As we probably know, the Mesillas Yesharim, was written by R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzato, also known as “the Ramchal”, and is one of the two most studied character development books of all time (the other being the Duties of the Heart).

The reason why Mesillas Yesharim is so popular is because the Ramchal teaches us:
– What it means to serve Hashem (Ramchal’s Introduction).
– Why we should devote our entire lives to serving Hashem (Chapter 1 – Man’s Mission in the World).
– How to methodologically improve our service of Hashem (Chapters 2 through 26)

The verse that the Ramchal says is the basis of our Service of Hashem, is Deutoronomy 10:12 in Parshas Eikev:
“And now, Israel, what does Hashem, your God, ask of you?
– Only to fear (be in awe of) Hashem, your God,
– to go in all His ways,
– and to love Him,
– and to serve Hashem, your God, with all your heart and all your soul,
– to observe the commandments of Hashem and His decrees, which I command you today, for your benefit. “

The Ramchal continues and says:
“Here, has been included all the components of complete Divine service that are pleasing to Hashem, blessed be He and they are: fear (awe) of Hashem, walking in His ways, love, wholeheartedness, and observance of all the commandments.

The Ramchal then writes a paragraph on each of these five components, which can be summarized as follows:
1) fear (awe) of Hashem – like you would fear (be in awe of) a great and awesome king,
2) walking in His ways – refining our character traits, leading to strengthening of Torah and improved friendships,
3) love – ingraining in our hearts a love of Hashem, and being inspired to please Him, like we would want to please our parents,
4) wholeheartedness – doing mitzvos with pure motives, focused on serving Hashem, not by rote, with heartfelt devotion,
5) and observance of all the mitzvos – observing the entire body of mitzvos, with all their fine points and conditions.

The Ramchal then says, “I have found that our Sages of blessed memory have categorized these elements in a different, more detailed formulation, in which they are arranged according to the order necessary for their proper acquisition.”

This is based on the Beraisa by Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair in the Gemora which says that Torah leads to Watchfulness, Zeal, Cleanliness, Separation, Purity, Saintliness, Humility, Fear of Sin, Holiness, Divine Inspiration, Revival of the Dead. The Mesillas Yesharim is based on this Beraisa.

I always wondered about the order of pasuk and why the Ramchal is so focused on it as the basis for Divine service, while the Gemora and the commentators are focused mainly on the fear (awe) part of the pasuk. I believe that the Ramchal sees that the Pasuk is in the reverse order of the Beraisa, with
5) observance of all the mitzvos – take us from the beginning through Cleanliness
4) wholeheartedness – takes us through Purity
3) love – takes us through Saintliness
2) walking in His ways – takes us through Humility
1) fear (awe) of God – takes us through Fear of Sin.

Perhaps this is why the Ramchal is all over this pasuk, because it has the same structure as the Beraisa delineating the components and levels of Divine Service.

This is a fantastic opportunity to review the introduction of Mesillas Yesharim, which can be found here.

Shmira Bashavua – Shmiras HaLashon in the Weekly Parsha

I am excited to share with the Beyond BT community the first fruits of a sefer that I have been working on for several years– Shmira Bashavua. Shmira Bashavua is a parsha sefer which gleans Shmiras HaLashon related halacha and hashkafa from each parsha and provides practical tools for taking each idea into the week.

I strongly believe that Shmira Bashavua has the potential to be a Shabbos table staple and play a part in creating stronger Shmiras HaLashon within our families and communities.

The first volume of Shmira Bashavua (Sefer Vayikra) is scheduled to be published and in stores in advance of Parshas Vayikra.

You can download the Introduction to the Sefer, the Introduction to Sefer Vayikra and 5 or 6 selections from Parshas Vayikra.
https://beyondbt.com/docs/ShmiraBashuvaVayikraSample.pdf

I am currently looking for sponsors for the sefer. This is an opportunity to play an important role in spreading awareness and learning of Shmiras HaLashon. Here is the link to the form which contains details about these dedication opportunities.
https://forms.gle/FcYJVdP2tQdVsyon7
I look forward to your feedback and I deeply appreciate your support.

David

Tisha B’Av Prep – Preserving Our Prayer Portal and Lessons from Bar Kamtza’s Pain

It’s not often that Bar Kamtza is portrayed as the good guy, but in this shiur by Rabbi Herschel Welcher, titled “Lessons from the Pain of Bar Kamtza“, we take a look at the story from Bar Kamtza’s perspective and see the lessons we can learn and apply today. Please download the shiur here.

In a shiur titled, “The Morning after the Mourning“, Rabbi Moshe Schwerd explains how we were responsible for closing the Prayer Portal of the Beis HaMikdash and how we’re unfortunately repeating the lesson with our distracted approach to prayer today. Please download the shiur here.

Unity, Diversity, the 9th of Av

During the summer months we tragically have to contend with the period of the Three Weeks and ט באב, the Ninth of Av. Our mourning centers around the physical and spiritual destruction of the holy Temple in Jerusalem and of Jewish national life in the Land of Israel. Indeed, we have many customs that mark this throughout the year. It is our custom in the beit midrash to learn about those customs on the afternoon of the Tisha B’av, the Ninth of Av. An additional important focus of our thoughts at this time is, ‘what is the remedy?’

To consider a cure, we must consider the root cause of a malady. The g’mara (יומא ט) discusses why our holy places were destroyed, comparing Shiloh and the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. Our particular concern is the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem, since this is the beginning of the exile that we yet struggle with and suffer from today, thousands of years later. Our g’mara tells us, “the second Temple period was a time of occupation with Torah and the commandments, and acts of kindness.

Why was it destroyed? Because of unwarranted enmity.” How are we to understand this?

How is it possible that large numbers of people are occupied with Hashem’s holy Torah, and acts of kindness; and are concurrently characterized by שנאת חינם – unexcused enmity?

This should scare us to the core! Isn’t this the very opposite of what we believe and expect of a Torah society? The very idea, the very possibility that Jews could be engaged in Torah study, in careful observance of the commandments, in acts of חסד/kindness to each other – and still hate each other at the same time? Yet this is precisely what our sages tell us characterized that period, and what we must still address and remedy.

It may be that the Netziv answered our perplexity in a famous responsum in Meshiv Davar (משיב דבר א סימן מד). A prominent Torah journal had published an editorial advocating the complete separation of observant Jews from other Jews in Europe. The Netziv wrote a lengthy response decrying this idea; analyzing and rejecting it as “like swords to the body and existence of the nation.” There the Netziv writes that during the second Temple period our nation was exiled and the Temple destroyed and the land cut off due to the ongoing public struggle between the P’rushim and the Tzadukim (Pharisees and Sadducees). This, he wrote, also brought about unjustified bloodshed because of the unwarranted enmity. When a Parush would see someone act leniently in a matter of Torah, he would judge him to be a Tzaduki (and therefore the enemy), even when this was simply an average Jew who happened to do wrong. But unwarranted enmity would make him judge this person to be an enemy in the great religious and social struggle, and violence would ensue.

The Netziv continues and says that such could certainly occur today, that one of the observant Jews would perceive that another Jew doesn’t behave the same as he in serving God and would judge him to therefore be a heretic and separate from him and they would end up persecuting each other.

We could, indeed, be occupied with Torah and acts of kindness; but still look down or askance at those very people we are helping or learning or davening with. The key to the cure is to first realize and deeply appreciate that the Torah does not require uniformity of us.

Yes, we all have to keep Shabbat and kashrut and give tzedakah. Yes, we all have to work to create individual and societal lives expressive of God’s will as revealed in His Torah. Yet time and again the Torah teaches us how that comes about through elements of diversity and individuality. Not free-for-all, make-it-up-as-we-go-along diversity; but a real diversity within Torah and tradition that comes about because of personality, character, style, and unique insights that result from real investment in Torah.

Consider that the holy menorah, the symbol and channel of Divine wisdom, had seven branches. Not one. Even though all the six peripheral lamps turned towards the center, they remained distinct. Each lamp had to burn on its own. Rav Avigdor Nevenzahl points out how this is a model for how each student eventually has to stand on his own, continuing but independent of what his rav has imparted to him.

Consider that even though we received one Torah as one people at Sinai (‘like one person of one heart’, Rashi to Ex. 19:2); the Torah rigorously preserves the identities (and therefore cultures) of the 12 tribes. Each tribe had its own flag and its own camp in the wilderness – though all centered around the mishkan/Tabernacle. In the Land of Israel each tribe retained its own territory, and through that some of its own customs and halachic behaviors. To create the Torah’s vision of a Torah society, we must maintain individual and distinct contributions that then work together synergistically. But we must realize and believe that the differences indeed lead to synergy. Only then will we not only tolerate differences; but we will value them and make good use of them.

Even with all our common obligations within the Torah, we must each find the particular path and style upon which we will make our particular contribution. What’s more, we must support each other and encourage each other to do so; and to rise ever higher in the heights of Torah. Then, Hashem will bless us to finally remedy the שנאת חינם, the unnecessary enmity which brought about our mourning and exile. Then we will be blessed to create a society in Israel that will be a blessing for all the nations.

כי ביתי בית תפלה יקרא לכל העמים – ‘for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.’ (ישעיה נו:ז/Isaiah 56:7).

It begins with us.

Originally posted August, 2011

The Three Weeks – Building The World

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on the Three Weeks and Tisha B’Ave

Binah/Binyan – The Power To ‘Build’ Through Our Understandings

ומלמד לאנוש בינה Hashem teaches “binah”, intuition, to us.

The word binah is related to the word binyan, to build. Torah scholars are called “builders” – they are blessed with the power of binah. When a person exerts himself in learning Torah, he is really building the world.

How can we reveal our power of binah to build the world – and to be more specific, to rebuild the Beis HaMikdash?

The Depth Behind ‘Sinas Chinam’ (Baseless Hatred): A Viewpoint of Disparity

Chazal tell us that the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed because of sinas chinam (baseless hatred)6. What is the root of sinas chinam? From where does this negative emotion come from?

Simply, it comes from being egotistical. When a person only cares about himself, he couldn’t care less about others, so he will hate others for no reason.

But the deeper understanding is as follows.

When we build a structure, a brick is placed on top of another. Hashem created many details in Creation; we are all like many bricks that need to get added together, and form the complete structure of Creation. All details in Creation are many parts of one whole which will ultimately have to come together.

When we see the world – inanimate objects, as well as people – from a superficial perspective, we do not see how all these connect. But it is this superficial perspective which actually brought about the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash!

We are supposed to see how all the details in Creation are really meant to come together and form a structure. Therefore, the many details going on in Creation are not just a bunch of random details. They are many parts of one whole, which need to come together in a structure. The purpose of everything is always one and the same – to come together, to become unified, and form one structure.

Applying this to our own development, when a person is young, he doesn’t connect outward beyond himself. When he gets a little older, he begins to realize that there is a Creator, and he wants to connect with the Creator, but he does not necessarily see connection with others as part of his connection with the Creator. If a person gets a little wiser, he realizes that his connection with the Creator really depends on how he connects with others.

When a person views Creation through a lens of disparity, this was the perspective which enabled destruction to come to the world. This is the depth behind sinas chinam.

Sinas Chinam – To Be Inwardly Apart From Other Jews

Even more so, sinas chinam means “I can live on my own; I don’t need other Jews in order to exist.”

What about the mitzvah to do chessed? The person rationalizes, “Chessed is like any other mitzvah that is outside of myself, like shaking a lulav. I don’t need chessed to exist.” When a person views Creation with disparity like this, that is sinas chinam – this perspective is what destroyed the Beis HaMikdash.

What was the Beis HaMikdash? It was the place that contained the Shechinah. But what is the Shechinah about? It is about Hashem’s Presence dwelling in Klal Yisrael, when we are in union. When we are not unified and we are instead apart from each other in our hearts, there is no point of having the Shechinah.

“The king is called the heart of the nation”; Hashem called is our “heart”. But if our hearts are full of disparity towards each other, and we each feel like we can survive without other Jews, then our damaged heart will not allow Hashem to be the heart of the nation, and thus the Shechinah will not dwell among us.

Sinas chinam has two layers to it. The outer layer of it is to show signs of hatred, simply speaking. The essence of sinas chinam, though, is that a person feels himself apart from other Jews, that he feels fine without other Jews, that he feels like he can live without other Jews. Sinas chinam, at its core, is to have a perspective of disparity towards Creation, a lack of awareness that Creation is supposed to become unified.

Moving In The Opposite Direction of Sinas Chinam

How do we go in the opposite direction, then, and get ahavas chinam (‘baseless love’)? We know that we have a mitzvah to love other Jews like ourselves but, how do we actually get it?

Simply speaking, we need to get rid of sinas chinam and reveal our deep ahavah for other Jews that we have really deep down. True, but there is more to it.

Ahavas chinam is when we realize, “I cannot exist without another Jew’s existence, for we are all part and parcel with one another.” There is no individual Jew who can live without another Jew’s existence; when we internalize this understanding, we reveal ahavas chinam. Thus, hatred can only exist when a Jew thinks he can exist fine without another Jew.

This perspective of ahavas chinam is the power that can rebuild the Beis HaMikdash, as well as the world as a whole.

Learning Torah To Build The World

As an example, when a person learns Torah, does he realize he is building the world? Or is he learning it all for himself…?

Learning Torah is what unifies the details of the world together. When a person learns Torah, he must be aware that his learning causes unity in Creation, for Torah is the root of all souls. But if a person is learning Torah and he has no love for other Jews, he’s learning Torah all for himself, and such Torah does not build the world.

Uprooting Hatred, and Getting To The Root of Love

The Rambam describes our middos as “daas”. The essence of all our middos and emotions is daas. The depth of ahavas chinam, and removing sinas chinam, is thus not by working with our emotions. Our emotions of love or hatred can only be the result of what perspective we have deep down. If we reveal daas – and we come to actually sense it – then we can reveal love.

We know that doing things for other people can bring love, for “the heart is pulled after the actions”, but at the same time we must realize that we need daas. When we do actions for others, we need to reveal daas with it – to realize that we must unify with others.

To uproot sinas chinam, and to develop ahavas chinam, we need to do good actions for others and help others, but along with this, we also need to reveal our daas – to realize that we need to unify with others. It is a perspective which we need to gain on how we view others. This is the way to access the real emotion of love for other Jews. Destruction comes when we are missing this perspective.

Love For Other Is Not A Novelty

What does it mean to love? It is not simply to shower love upon others. Love is when we reach our daas, when we connect with others, by realizing that all of Creation needs to become unified.

When a person gets married, he believes this is his bashert (soul-mate). He believes the words of Chazal that finding a wife is like finding his lost object. He does not view the love towards his wife as something new; he realizes that he is revealing a reality which is already there, for Chazal say that husband and wife were already destined to be bound together in love.

In the same way, we should view other Jews in Creation – our love for other Jews must not be some novel concept to us. When you meet another Jew, don’t think to yourself that Ahavas Yisrael is some new concept that you have to work on. Rather, it is the reality, and you need to align your way of thinking with that reality. This is because we are all one at our root.

The only reason why we don’t feel that unity is because we are currently living in a world of darkness, which blurs us from seeing the true reality. Therefore, we feel apart from each other, but it’s only because we are not in touch with reality.

What We Cry About on Tisha B’Av

We cry on Tisha B’Av over the ruins of Jerusalem, which lies in disgrace. We are living in a time of hester panim (concealment of Hashem’s revelation). But even more than so, we should cry about an even more painful situation: there are many of our fellow Jews today who are going through all sorts of pain, suffering, and predicament. In our times we live in, our fellow Jews today have both physical suffering as well as suffering of the soul.

We cannot really cry over the destruction of Jerusalem if we do not feel unity with other Jews. Why we do we cry on Tisha B’Av? Is it because we can’t bring our own Korbonos for ourselves? Or are we crying because we don’t have the Korbonos that atone for the entire congregation…? Which of these aspects means more to you…?

In Conclusion

“Whoever mourns Jerusalem, will merit to its rebuilding.” Even if we do not merit the actual rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash, we can each have a part in its rebuilding, when we build the world through the deeper understanding that comes from our “daas”, towards our relationship with the other Jewish souls.

May we all merit to unify with other Jews, as one piece, and come together into one structure, in which “Hashem will be One, and His Name will be one”.

We’re All Broken Vessels – The 17th of Tammuz

By Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller Gottlieb

Internalized Confusion Leads to Tragedy

The first major tragedy in history was when Adam ate the fruit and internalized confusion. Prior to that sin, confusion was external, but after the sin the confusion was internalized. Man went from an objective reality of true and false to an often confused subjective reality of good and evil.

Much of the negativity in the world is due to this confusion, where collective mankind brings upon itself tragedies such as hunger, poverty and war. This is the negative side of free choice and these tragedies result from our confusion. If we had G-d awareness, we would be able to get past these tragedies. If we had a strong sense of G-d’s presence, confused negative traits like selfishness, violence, cruelty and abusiveness would not exist.

With Spiritual Diminishment, We Make G-d Small, Instead of Making Ourselves Big

After the first sin, G-d withdrew His presence from the world, but it was restored by people such as Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov until a full awareness of G-d was acheived at Sinai. So how did the people worship the golden calf shortly thereafter?

Nobody thought the golden calf was the creator of the world. Nobody creates an idol in the morning and thinks that it created him in the afternoon. The golden calf was representative of the powers of nature and strength, it was a representation of G-d. What is so bad about this? What’s so bad about idol worship is that we were created to elevate ourselves. Idol worship brings G-d down to man instead of man rising up to G-d. When we try to make G-d small, we fail as humans, we stop moving upwards. This lack of spiritual ambition was the second great tragedy.

Many people today are not intellectually confused, they are spiritually lost. They don’t see the value of becoming “big”. When we build golden calves we weaken spiritual ambition and cause spiritual diminishment.

We Live in a World Where Spirit is Gone and What is Left is Stone

When Moshe came down from Sinai on the 17th of Tammuz and saw the Golden Calf, he smashed the tablets. The Midrash says the tablets were very huge and the letters of the tablets carried the weight of the stone, the spirit carried the body. When he saw the golden calf, the spirit was gone and all that was left was stone, so the tablets fell under their own weight and were smashed.

Today we live in a world of rampant materialism and foreign lifestyles. It is a world where spirit is gone and what is left is stone. This is one reason why we fast today.

We’re Fine with using Animals for Food and Clothing, But not for Spiritual Purposes

The next significant event is that the sacrifices were stopped before the destruction of the temple. Even during the siege of Yerushalayim, the Jews would offer sacrifices. They would send down money over the wall and an animal would be sent up. One day they sent down money and a pig was sent up. It was at that point that the sacrifices stopped.

Today, many of us have trouble with sacrifices both emotionally and intellectually. But most of us have no problem using animals for food or for leather. We are fine with exploiting animals for our physical purposes, but if we talk about using an animal for spiritual means it becomes barbaric and ridiculous. This is because we have stone and we don’t have spirit, we can relate to eating, but we can’t relate to worship.

Animal sacrifice is a way of experientially relating to G-d. The person offering the sacrifice had to put their hand on the animal, saying I am mortal, I came from you and I will return to you. It was an extremely powerful way of relating to G-d. The reason we’re concerned about the day the sacrifices stopped is because of what it says about it. The fact that the temple could be destroyed is an example of spirit turning to stone and the animal sacrifices being another symptom.

The Temple Was our House for Spiritual Self-Expression

The other tragedies on this day were the Torah was burned, an idol was brought into the temple and the walls of Yerushalayim were breached, leading to the destruction on the 9th of Av. When we talk about losing the Temple, it’s hard to grasp what that means. The temple was called a mountain by Avraham, a field by Yitzchak and a house by Yaakov. A house is a place where you can personally express yourself. For a Jew, personal self-expression means putting back spirit where there is only stone. The Beis Hamikdash was a place where spiritual experience was a part of physical experience, it wasn’t two different worlds like it is today.

We can’t relate to what we are missing in the temple experience, because we have never met anybody who met anybody who met anybody who saw the Jewish people when our major identity was spirit and not stone. We don’t know who we are anymore.

The 17th of Tammuz is Meant to Be a Heavy Day of Introspection

What does this have to do with us personally? When we think about what gives our life joy it comes down to two things, triumph and love. If we think about our happiest moment, there is no doubt there is triumph and love. Triumph and love only happen when spirit is greater than stone. Our world is very banal and grey and the only thing that allows us to rise above this physical existence is the moments of triumph and achievement that are truly spiritual that come to us through the mitzvos.

The 17th of Tammuz is a personal day when we have to do an accounting of our soul, a cheshbon nefesh. We have to figure where we are, where we want to be, where we want to be next year. What do we want people to say about us in the end, how would we want today to look if it was our last day? It’s a heavy day, it’s meant to be heavy.

In addition to looking at this personally, we have an obligation to look at this collectively. Collectively, we are not in such great shape, especially in regard to events in the Middle East. We are all collectively responsible for the state we are in.

G-d Wants to Give, But Do We Want to Receive

Today we have to say, can we be the person we talk about every day in the Shema? Can we love G-d with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our possessions? Do we live up to the ideal of spirit over rock. G-d has promised us that when we live up to our potential, He will give us the land and He will give us peace. When we fail, we are expelled. This is what we say in the Shema, if we serve Hashem with our heart and our soul we will get blessings. But be careful that your heart is not seduced. We can’t let our emotions lead us to choosing the physical over the spiritual. This will lead us to worshipping and serving other G-ds, our own private golden calves. We all know at least one person who is enslaved to their ego, or their income or their career. This is personal enslavement. When we reach that state of enslavement, G-d will expel us from the land, because He cares for us. G-d on his side wants to give, but do we want to receive?

Fasting has two purposes to move us away from the physical and to recognize our fraility. We move away from the physical pleasure, specifically eating which is a big part of our life. As it gets late in the day, many of us will ask, when is the fast over. We will be concerned about the phyisical. This need for the physical reminds us that we are frail and we are physical. Part of raising the spiritual over the physical is being forgiving of each other. The more we are aware of our own fraility, the easier it is to remember that every person we encounter is a member of the brotherhood of the frail. Everybody else faces the physical and gratification struggles that we do. We need to forgive them like we want G-d to forgive us.

We’re All Broken Vessels

In the time of the sacrifices in Shilo, after pottery vessels were used for libations, they had to be broken within sight of the alter. After coming in to possession of some of these pottery shards, Rebbetzin Heller realized that these shards were pieces of someone else’s Teshuva. She sent some of these shards to a friend in the States who had suffered some great losses. She asked her what she thought about the shards. Her friend told her, “We’re all broken vessels”.

Once we see everybody as a broken vessel, we can forgive them, we can love them, we can let what we see of their spirit overcome what we see of their stone. This is the key that will help us overcome the destruction that we find ourselves in now. This is the way the Third Temple will be built.


First Posted on July 3rd, 2007
Based on a lecture By Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller which can be found here.

Rabbi Mayer Schiller – The Biggest Challenges Facing Baalei Teshuva

Rabbi Mayer Schiller is stopping teaching, so we are paying tribute to his wonderful career by reposting this great piece that he wrote for Beyond BT when we first started in December 2005.

Part 1 — Challenges

I have been asked to write on the “biggest challenges facing baalei teshuva.” Of course, every Jew in his life’s pursuit of Hashem and His Torah encounters challenges. However, the challenges we face and how we respond to them is forever colored by who we are and where we come from. Thus, much of what follows may be relevant to all Jews but it strikes me that these challenges are of particular concern to baalei teshuva.

The tikkun that each individual’s life is to achieve requires a realistic assessment of the nisyonos that are specific to one’s place in life, human/Jewish history and cultural context.

Also, any discussion of this issue must be colored by much subjectivity. We can, in the end, only speak with authority about our own “challenges.” Part of us is always alone in the world. Yet, life is also a shared experience. Hopefully some of what I – and others on this site – have to say may resonate in the heart of another and together we may be worthy of giving and receiving a bit of chizuk as we seek to ascend the har Hashem.

In all honesty, I have encountered so many challenges, born of the baal teshuva experience, that one almost doesn’t know where to begin. Plus, the challenges change, some deepen, while others become weaker over the years, as one spends more time in the Orthodox community.

At the beginning, I think a baal teshuva is haunted by a certain loneliness in, and sense of alienation from his new environment. Everyone else practices Judaism as a matter of second nature. To baalei teshuva, at first, everything done, learned and experienced is new, startling and , at times confusing. Everything is a big deal. Everyone else seems to know what is a big deal and what isn’t.

As part of this problem there is the, at times, blasé attitude of FFBers who seem less than enthused about things that the BT has been taught are of the utmost importance. This too can be most disconcerting.

Before long, one realizes that Orthodoxy is not a monolith and that there are many different models of how to live in the Torah world. Should the baal teshuva select a significant sage to tell him where to go or, should he seek a derech that fits his own soul’s needs as he perceives/experiences them?

Perhaps, the most daunting challenge faced is the ever growing awareness that not all Orthodox Jews are paragons of empathy or kindness or patience or even honesty; or even very much engaged in proper study and prayer. Further, to some of them, their religion is simply a rote practice, little cherished and almost no source of inspiration to them. The personal encounters with all the above can give many a baal teshuva moments of pain and doubt. To a degree that pain will never pass. We all entered Yiddishkeit in search of a good, more meaningful and certainly more spiritual, moral and ethical life. The grim knowledge that this is often far from the reality hits baalei teshuva very hard.

Indeed, the pain for the BT intensifies when he later confronts the fact that his children are FFBs and often far less passionate about the same things that inspired him.

Often the BT learns by experience that it is even those Torah teachers that may have once seemed so perfect to him that are, in reality, flawed human beings as well.

For the thoughtful BT the process of engaging with Torah and halacha may at times prove disquieting. Laws and ideas concerning non – Jews, women, the disabled, slaves and the like are apt to be unsettling and the proposed answers often apologetic and/or seemingly inadequate.

Finally, there is the general stance of Orthodoxy in relation to non – Orthodox (or haredi towards Modern Orthodox and, more surprisingly, Modern Orthodox to haredi) society both in Israel and America as self absorbed, insular tribes with little interest in or responsibility towards “outside” groups /individuals, be it of a material or spiritual nature. This attitude inevitably costs many BTs some sleepless nights.

All or some of the above are among the challenges BTs face. As a BT member of the Beth Shraga Beis Medrash said to me in the summer of 1968, “In the end we are different. It is not just that we can’t go home for Shabbos. We are built differently and always will stay that way.”

This is both a blessing and a curse. Just as the BT will often carry some alienation and doubt throughout life, he will also experience Torah in powerful, wondrous, insightful and joyous ways that might be inaccessible to most FFBs.

In my next entry I hope to discuss the possible means (thoughts, seforim, leaders, books, communities and the like) that will help a BT through the moments of darkness just outlined.

For the interim, the essential issue is to retain the fervor and devotion of one’s initial experiences in Torah while living in the real world with its ambiguities. complexities, paradoxes and disappointments. This is the calling of the mature, thoughtful BT.

May we all be worthy of success and joy in our service of the Ribbono shel Olam.

Rabbi Mayer Schiller

Originally posted on December 9th, 2005.

Telling My Story

When people meet me, and find out a bit of my background – being from Alabama, not growing up in an Orthodox home – they often ask me to tell “my story.” I used to have no problem with this, but lately, the request for my story has started to bother me.

I don’t hide my background; I don’t pretend to be “FFB” (though I’ve been told on more than one occasion that I could “pass” easily). I’m very upfront with my background and the fact that my family is not observant. So why does it bother me to be asked about my story?

I think it’s because I’ve moved beyond my story. I’ve been shomer shabbos for almost nine years now, the majority of my independent life. My “story” occurred a long time ago. I just don’t feel like those events define who I am anymore, nor even my frumkeit.

Many people who become observant go off to a certain seminary or yeshiva and come to define themselves within the hashkafa of that particular place. I didn’t do that – I worked it out for myself, through many permutations until I made it my own. I imagine that it will still change somewhat throughout my life, but I don’t define myself by the organization that mikareved me, so I’m always a little uncomfortable telling people how I got “into” Orthodoxy.

But beyond having people try to define me by the specific organization that I don’t align myself with (which I don’t blame anyone for, it’s human nature to want to put people in boxes in order to understand them better), I guess I want to move on with my life, to just be a normal Jew who observes or doesn’t observe particular facets of Judaism. It’s not about blending – believe me, it’s difficult to blend when you are from Alabama, living in the NY area – but it’s about wanting people to look at me for WHO I am NOW, rather than where I came from.

Yes, our current lives are certainly affected by our upbringing and our experiences throughout life, but because the events that sparked my interest in becoming more observant happened so long ago, I’m not that person anymore. I’ve moved beyond it, just like I’ve moved beyond the person I was in junior high school.

So now when people ask me my story, I kinda cringe and give them as few details as possible. Not because I’m embarrassed about it or my past, because I’m not. But because I just have trouble remembering who that person was.

Originally Posted in December 2006

The Power of the Spoken Word

Parshas Shelach
“Send forth men, if you please, and let them spy out the land of Canaan that I give to the Children of Israel” — Bamidbar 13:2

Timeline of the miraglim

The parsha of Shelach opens up with the story of the miraglim. Rashi notes that the previous parsha ended with the story of Miriam getting tzaras and being sent out of the camp because she spoke loshon harah about Moshe. Since this parsha begins with the miraglim, it implies that these two events are connected. But Rashi is bothered by the fact that they did not happen in chronological proximity. The events of the Korach rebellion were sandwiched in between.

Rashi explains that the Torah took these two events and juxtaposed them to teach us a lesson: Had the miraglim not been so wicked, they would have learned from what happened to Miriam, and that would have prevented them from saying their negative report about the land. However, says Rashi, “These wicked people saw what happened and didn’t learn from it.”

The miraglim’s sin wasn’t loshon harah

The problem with this Rashi is that the miraglim’s sin had nothing to do with loshon harah; it emanated from a lack of trust in HASHEM. When they entered the land, they saw giants occupying fortified cities. They witnessed people dying left, right, and center. In their minds, if the Jewish nation attempted to conquer this land, they would be slaughtered wholesale – man, woman, and child.

Clearly, they were lacking in bitachon. Their faith in HASHEM was deficient. But they weren’t guilty of speaking loshon harah. First off, there is no prohibition against speaking loshon harah about land. Land is inanimate. We are forbidden from derogatory speech about people – not rocks.

Of even greater significance, once the miragalim made their mistake and concluded that HASHEM wasn’t powerful enough to bring us into the land, what they then spoke wasn’t loshon harah at all. In their calculation, they were saving the Jewish people from utter destruction, in which case it wasn’t forbidden speech; it was a mitzvah.

Why does the Torah forbid loshon harah?

The answer to this question stems from understanding why the Torah forbids loshon harah. The Rambam defines loshon harah as words that hurt, words that damage. Whether they cause a person embarrassment, loss of income, or sully his reputation, the very definition of loshon harah is words that cause harm. That is the reason the Torah forbids us to speak it – not because the Torah is so strict, but because words can have such a harmful effect.

To appreciate the damage that words can cause, imagine that I discover a cloak of invisibility. When I put this cape on, I can walk around freely without anyone seeing me. Imagine for a moment that after I find this cloak, I decide to have some fun. As I walk around the bais medrash, I take a sefer from one fellow and turn it upside down. Oh, his reaction when he sees it! Then I walk over to another fellow and close his Gemara. “Hey! What happened?” Next, I see a pair of charvusahs who are standing up for a moment. I walk over and put both of their Gemaras back on the shelf. “What–?”

I am having a jolly time!

After a while, I get a bit bolder. As someone is walking by, I leave my foot in the aisle. “Heyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!” he yells as he falls to the floor with a crash.

“This is fun,” I think to myself. And now I really start to get into it.

As a fellow walks by, I give him a punch in the stomach, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh!” The next guy, I smash in the back, “Agggggh!” And before you know it, guys are falling, getting smashed, and really getting hurt. The joke is no longer funny.

The Chofetz Chaim points out to us that the Torah reserves a curse for one who “hits his neighbor while hiding.” Chazal explain that this refers to someone who speaks loshon harah about his friend. Why am I so cavalier about what I say about him? Because he isn’t here. If he were standing right nearby, I would never say what I said. I say it only because he isn’t around. And in that sense, I am hitting him while hiding.

One of the reasons that we have difficulty controlling our speech is that we don’t see it as truly damaging. “What is the big deal if I tell an interesting story or two?” we say. While I would never dream of physically harming you, when it comes to ruining your reputation, damaging your business, or causing you harm in the way that people perceive you, then I am much less concerned. The Torah is teaching us that loshon harah is forbidden because of the power of the words and the damage they can cause. That is why they are forbidden.

The power of speech

The answer to this question on the miraglim seems to be that they should have seen what happened to Miriam and learned one lesson from it – the power of speech. They should have thought to themselves, “If such a tzadekes said something only slightly questionable about her brother whom she loved and revered and had to be sent out of the encampment for seven days to suffer embarrassment and public humiliation, what does that tell us about the impact of her words? Why did HASHEM act so harshly with her? It must be that what she did was far more egregious than we realized. It must be that her words – while merely speech – are a powerful force.”

Had the miraglim learned this lesson, they would have been far more careful in their speech. They would have thought many times about the consequences of their words, and that would have made them stop and think to themselves, “Before we bring back this report, are we sure? Are we a hundred percent certain that the Jewish people will die trying to conquer this land? Didn’t HASHEM bring us out of Mitzrayim? Didn’t HASHEM split the sea for us?”

Understanding the power of speech would have caused them to think about the consequences, and the results might well have been very different.

This concept has great relevance in our lives. Most of the damage that we do through speech isn’t malicious or with bad intent. We speak without thinking about the consequences, without contemplating the results. The Torah is teaching us the power of those words and how careful we have to be with what we say, not because the Torah is machmir when it comes to sins of speech, but because of the effect that speech has to help or to harm – because of the power of the spoken word.

For more on this topic please listen to Shmuz #139- The Power of Speech

The Shmuz – Marriage Seminar, a 12 part, comprehensive guide to a successful Marriage is available FREE of charge at www.TheShmuz.com. It is also on the Shmuz App available at the App store, or on Google play, or you may listen on Kol Halashon by calling 718- 906 6400, then options 1, 4, 3

What Not To Do At The Shabbat Table

The Broodo family of Dallas, Texas is now a well-established Orthodox family. They’re leaders and role models in their community. However one event during their first Shabbat experience almost derailed their teshuva journey. If it was not for the quick thinking of their hosts, their lives might have been very different today.

Ken and Beth Broodo were both raised in non-Orthodox Jewish homes. Ken is a lawyer, and several years ago a local Jewish organization, the Dallas Area Torah Association (DATA), the “community kollel,” sponsored a onetime lunch-n-learn at his law firm. It was delivered by a big-name visiting rabbi. Ken attended the event and enjoyed it, but didn’t feel particularly changed by it.

The event put the Broodos on DATA’s mailing list, and six months later they received an invitation to a DATA seminar on the upcoming holiday of Purim. The Broodos acknowledged that they knew very little about their Judaism and were very curious to learn more, so they decided to attend the event.

At the event, DATA rabbis spoke about various topics of Purim. One topic, the Hidden Mask of Nature, peaked their curiosity. The speaker, Rabbi Aryeh Feigenbaum, surprised them by pointing out that Hashem’s name is never mentioned in the Megillah but His hand is apparent throughout the whole story.
“Only when you look back do you see Hashem’s hand in it. Even when I say it now I get chills. I had never heard something of that depth about the Torah. It was an interesting phenomenon to me,” Ken said.

Ken was fascinated by the presentation and impressed by Rabbi Feigenbaum. Ken stayed afterwards to drill him with a slew of other questions.
Following the seminar, the Broodos began attending other classes sponsored by DATA. Ken began studying one-on-one with Rabbi Feigenbaum each week. He and his wife began seeing the truth and beauty of Judaism and began to realize that this was the spirituality they were craving in their lives. However they were somewhat intimidated by the observances and cautious about jumping into anything too religious.

Rabbi Feigenbaum had given them an open invitation to come to synagogue on a Friday night and to his home for Shabbat dinner. The Broodos were intrigued by the opportunity to learn more and to get closer to the Feigenbaums. They were uncertain about what the experience would be like, but were excited about the opportunity. One Friday night they decided to take him up on it.

As soon as they entered the Feigenbaum’s house, the Broodos were made comfortable by their hosts’ warm welcome, the beauty of their Shabbat table and the obvious love and holiness that filled the home.

“It was my first Shabbat dinner. I was very taken by the whole scene – the white tablecloth, the silver Kiddush cup, the candles, the singing and the Divrai Torah,” Ken said.

Ken especially loved Mrs. Feigenbaum’s homemade Challah. He had never eaten homemade challah before, and he found it to be absolutely delicious.
After finishing his first piece, Ken craved a second slice. The challah was sitting in a metal wire basket in the middle of the table, amidst all sorts of dishes and just on the other side of Mrs. Feigenbaum’s beautiful silver Shabbat candlesticks. Ken tried asking other people to pass him the bowl, but he couldn’t get anyone’s attention. So he decided to lean across the table and pick up the challah bowl himself.

The challah basket was lined with a napkin. As he carried the basket over the items on the table, Ken lifted it over the Shabbat candles, and within a second, it caught fire and turned into a giant bowl of flaming challah!

Ken dropped the burning basket onto the table and was about the douse it with his glass of water, when the rabbi leaned over the table and said ‘Stop!’ Rabbi Feigenbaum picked up the basket, carried to the front porch and let it burn out.

Ken felt extremely embarrassed that he had set the Feigenbaum’s challah on fire. He was ready to leave the meal at the first opportunity and never come back again. But when Ken and wife finally did put on their coats to leave, without missing a beat, Mrs. Feigenbaum responded in a way that immediately turned around his negative feelings.

“Stop worrying about it,” she said to Ken. “The next time you want toast for Shabbat, just let me know in advance!”

Mrs. Feigenbaum’s quip put a smile back on Ken’s face and helped the Broodos stay on their path of growth towards Jewish observance.

“When Mrs. Feigenbaum said that, we all laughed. I realized that no one judged me for making such a ridiculous mistake. Then I felt accepted” Ken explained. “When you’re not frum and you’re around people that are, the one thing you feel sure of is that you are being judged and not accepted.”

The burning challah episode was a critical point in the Broodos’ life. If their hosts had handled it in any other way, they might have never come back. Instead they returned for many more meals in the Feigenbaum home and grew extremely close to the family. They began attending additional classes and started coming to the community frequently for Shabbat.

The Broodos eventually moved into the neighborhood. Several years later, the new local Orthodox synagogue was founded in their living room, and they remain extremely involved to this day. They also now frequently host newcomers to the community. And for anyone who seems uncomfortable by being in an Orthodox home for Shabbat, Ken eases their worries by telling them the story about the Shabbat night that he set the rabbi’s challah on fire.

Michael Gros is the former Chief Operating Officer of the outreach organization The Atlanta Scholars Kollel. He writes from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. Send comments to michaelgros@gmail.com.
Published in the Jewish Press in March, 2010

The Test of Shavuos

Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the Bilvavi and the Getting to Know Yourself (Soul, Emotions, Home) seforim has a free download available of Shavous Talks here.

The Test That Returns Each Year

Shavuos is the time of the giving of the Torah. Consequently, it is now the time to prepare to receive the Torah. In order to ‘receive’ the Torah each year we can gain inspiration from reflecting on what the Jewish people did to prepare themselves to receive the Torah.

When Hashem came down to Har Sinai, He revealed Himself to the Jewish people. The entire nation trembled at the awesomeness of His revelation. Moshe Rabbeinu had to reassure the people that they had nothing to fear, and that Hashem was merely giving them a test.

A difficult test is called a nisayon. The days of Sefiras HaOmer occur during three months of the Jewish calendar – the second half of the month of Nissan, the entire month of Iyar, and the beginning of the month of Sivan. The word Nissan is rooted in the word nisayon. In other words, this first month of the sefiras ha’omer, the month of Nissan, contains in it a nisayon – a test. The “test” is how we will prepare for the Torah.

The word Iyar (the month which follows Nissan) comes from the word “yirah”, awe. This alludes to how the month of Iyar contains the power of yirah which can help enable us to prepare for receiving the Torah.

Thus, the months of Nissan and Iyar both serve to help us prepare for Shavuos. The “nisayon” (test)of Nissan requires us to prepare for the Torah, and the month of Iyar aids us in having the proper yirah, which are both necessary in order to receive the Torah.

The word nisayon comes from the word nes, which means to “run”; if a person “runs” away from the nisayon, he fails to grow from it. Alternatively, the word nes also means “miracle,” which uplifts a person. The hint of this is that a nisayon can either cause a person to run away from it, or become uplifted from it.Thus, every nisayon we endure serves as a test of our power of free choice – we can choose to elevate ourselves through the nisayon we are presented with, or run away from the message and fail to grow.

When the people heard the voice of Hashem at Har Sinai and all the thunder and lightning that followed, they had a nisayon. They were faced with a choice – they could want to run away, orthey could choose to become uplifted. Their first reaction was to want to flee; only then did Moshe Rabbeinu calm them down and reassure them not to flee in fear. He was really teaching the people that the purpose of this nisayon was to uplift them.

The Test At Har Sinai and Each Year

What exactly is the nisayon which the Jewish people faced in receiving the Torah? What did they find so difficult?

The Mesillas Yesharim writes that everything in this world is in a nisayon. No matter who you are and what your situation is, one is always facing a nisayon.

The first nisayon at Har Sinai was whether we the Jewish people would really accept the Torah when it was offered by Hashem to them as an option. The second nisayon occurred at the actual time of the giving of the Torah and was a much deeper but more subtle kind of test. At this point the Jewish people had already reached the apex of perfection, standing at Har Sinai and seeing the revelation of Hashem. Their test was whether they were willing and courageous enough choose to hear the Torah directly from the voice of Hashem.

Did they pass the test?

The Torah tells us that they did not pass the test. When the people heard the voice of Hashem at Har Sinai, they were afraid that they would die from hearing Hashem’s voice. In their fear, they requested to hear the Torah from Moshe’s voice instead. The Vilna Gaon teaches that this deviation from listening to Hashem was the seed that ultimately led to the sin of the Golden Calf. The Jewish people were supposed to be on the level of being willing to die in order to hear the voice of Hashem. From this we learn that we actually need to serve Hashem on the level of being prepared to die just to listen to Hashem’s voice!

But surely we would be forgiven for wanting to live and give up the opportunity to hear Hashem’s voice, rather than hear Hashem’s voice and die? What is the problem with choosing to live rather than hear Hashem’s voice? The answer is that to live without hearing the voice of Hashem’s is not really a life!

Admittedly, the people’s fear of Hashem’s voice did not signify idol worship. However, the sin lay in the fact that their fear of dying (which they associated with hearing His voice directly) surpassed their love of Hashem. The people’s fear of dying led them to settle for hearing the Torah through Moshe instead of directly from Hashem’s voice. However, the people failed to realize that life without hearing Hashem’s voice is meaningless.

When Adam sinned, he was ashamed in front of Hashem. He said, “Your voice I hear amidst the garden, but I am afraid and hiding.” [1] He ran away from hearing Hashem’s voice. At Har Sinai, we reached the purified state of Adam before the sin and were tested once again to see if we would listen to Hashem’s voice or run in fear. However, we failed to pass the test.

All of us were at Har Sinai, for our souls were there in a previous lifetime. Thus, we all failed to pass that test – we were afraid to die. However, we have a chance every year to pass this test again every year at Shavuos time. Are we ready to die to hear the voice of Hashem?

Before we accept the light of receiving the Torah which returns every year on Shavuos, we are first tested again to see whether we have reached the level of choosing to listen to Hashem’s voice and risk dying. At Har Sinai, the test was overt. In contrast, the test of our current day is not as clear to us, though it is the same test. And though we are not on the same level as we were at Har Sinai, Hashem still sends us the same test to each and every one us each year [to see if we will pass].

Striving For A Relationship With Hashem In Our Daily Life

In practical terms, what is our “test” that returns to us each Shavuos? In order to understand the essence of this difficult test presented to us each year on Shavuos, we must first understand that there are two totally different ways to live life.

When faced with a difficulty, one kind of person will continue to learn Torah and do all the mitzvos, visit tzaddikim and give tzedakah. He may also daven by kevarim (and even talk to Hashem a little when he is there). In contrast, the second type of person who meets with challenges will talk to Hashem about them all the time, and share with Him all his problems.

The first type of person is missing the point of life. Of course, there is something special in visiting tzaddikim. There is certainly a concept of segulos, but relying on spiritual charms is not enough!! We need to have a constant relationship with Hashem, including regular interaction and talking to Him, so that when we face a challenge we will naturally talk to Hashem directly, without wanting or thinking we need someone else to do it for us!

When we daven to Hashem in Shemoneh Esrei, we must realize we are speaking directly with Hashem. We can choose to ‘hear His voice’ and have direct contact with Him. And this is not just limited to our Shemonei Esrei. Our entire life can and should involve Hashem in this way. We should strive to always feel that Hashem is in front of us. As we learn from the Mesillas Yesharim, we should talk to Hashem “as a man who talks to his friend.”

For instance, imagine that you need something urgently. There is something very specific that you personally can do about it. Talk to Hashem! Davening to Hashem is not a “segulah.” Rather, it should be natural to you. This mindset and practice affects our entire life. Tefillah is the art of a Jew, which we received from our ancestors. We can ask and thank Hashem before everything we do.

However, since many of us are unfamiliar with this regular practice, we do not feel that closeness to Hashem. Therefore, it is only natural that we would be less likely to be prepared to die for Hashem. There is no relationship, so we would be less inclined to sacrifice anything for Him. There has to first be a relationship with Hashem. Only once we have fostered and ignited a close and loving relationship can we ever hope to reach the level of being prepared to give himself up for Him.

Every year, Hashem approaches us on Shavuos and offers to speak to us again so we can hear His voice. The question is – are we prepared to listen to Him? The truth to this question lies deep in your heart. We must try to reach a level whereby we truly should be willing to and want to hear the voice of Hashem.

Of course, if you ask anyone if he wants to hear Hashem’s voice, he will respond, “Of course! What spiritual bliss that would be!” But as soon as he told that he will have to give his life for it and die for it, he turns back and runs away. At Har Sinai the people did not want to hear Hashem’s voice. Instead they chose to hear the Torah from Moshe. It is harsh to say something like this, but the same thing is likely to happen at the time of the Moshiach if one did not develop a strong enough relationship with Hashem. At the time of the Moshiach, we are taught that we will learn Torah. But from whom will we hear this Torah from? We will have a choice to hear it either from Hashem directly, or from Moshiach.

If someone never spent his life talking with Hashem, then when Moshiach comes, he will not be able to suddenly run to go hear Hashem’s voice teaching the Torah. He will reject hearing the Torah directly from Hashem Himself, in favor of hearing it from Moshiach!

The Sages teach that one must exert himself over the Torah, and must “kill himself in the tents of Torah.”[2] Why it is indeed necessary for us to ‘die’ for the Torah? On a simple level, this is a euphemism for sacrificing all materialism for the sake of ruchniyus, and a greater connection with the Torah. However, on a deeper level, we learn that just as the Jewish people were supposed to die in order to hear Hashem’s voice, so must we be prepared to die in order to hear Hashem’s speaking to us through the Torah.

And so, the question we must ask ourselves each Shavuos is: Are we prepared to die for the Torah?

Imagine if Hashem came to us again and asked us if we wanted the Torah. Imagine if we heard His voice and felt our souls leaving us, just as the souls of the Jewish people left them with each word of the Torah they heard from Hashem. What would we do? Would we be willing to continue listening and sacrifice our soul? Or would we say, “I don’t know about this. I have to ask my wife. Also, I have kids at home. If I die, they will be left without a father.” All kinds of excuses….

Preparation for receiving the Torah is really all about being prepared to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of Torah and to hear Hashem’s voice. And, this must be a true willingness in one’s heart, and it will not suffice as a mere utterance of the lips that is superficial.

Preparing For Shavuos: Making A Self-Accounting

Practically speaking, in the three days leading up to Shavuos, everyone should actively carve out some time of quiet to make a self-accounting and ask himself if he is ready to accept the Torah or not. Is he willing to stay and listen to Hashem’s voice at the risk of death? This is the question that each Jew should ask himself every Shavuos: “If I would be standing at Har Sinai right now, would I be on the level to receive the Torah directly from Hashem’s voice?”

People may assume that such willingness to sacrifice our lives for Hashem was only relevant and appropriate for previous generations, and that we surely cannot be on the level of standing at Har Sinai. They may react, “What do you want from us?? These words are not for this generation…”

But such an attitude reveals a rejection of receiving the Torah. Whether or not we are there yet, we must at least strive to have a yearning to reach that high level, and we must not remain complacent with a low spiritual level.

This willingness to die for Hashem and His Torah should not be limited just to Shavuos. It should carry over into the rest of the year as well – to life a life of connection with Hashem, all day, and not just when we daven three times a day. Every day, each person should actively consider deeply about his relationship with Hashem, and how much he is willing to sacrifice to get closer to Him.

The Torah says, “Remember the day in which you stood before Hashem, your G-d, at Horeb.” Don’t just remember that you stood at Har Sinai – remember that you stood in front ofHashem at Har Sinai.

These words here will ring true for anyone who searches for a true kind of life. It is the true way to prepare for receiving the Torah. I hope that the words here are not new to you; to the contrary, I hope that they are quite familiar to you. We must separate ourselves from the mores of our generation to become souls of the Creator of the World.

May Hashem merit all of us to accept the Torah before Shavuos, and to be ready to give ourselves up in order to hear Hashem’s voice and His Torah, all year.

[1] Bereishis 3:10

[2] Brochos 63b

For Erev Rosh Chodesh Sivan – A Translation of The Shelah’s Prayer for Parents on Behalf of their Children

The Shelah HaKadosh says that Erev Rosh Chodesh Sivan is a special day to daven for your children’s spiritual and material needs. Here is an English Translation of the Shelah’s prayer he composed for this day. You can say the Hebrew version here. Here is the link to the prayer on Artscroll’s Website.

You have been the Eternal, our G-d, before You created the world, and You are the Eternal, our G-d, since you created the world, and You are G-d forever. You created Your world so that Your Divinity should become revealed thorugh Your holy Torah, as our Sages expounded on the first word therein, and for Israel, for they are Your people and Your inheritance whom You have chosen from among all nations. You have given them Your holy Torah and drawn them toward Your great Name. These two commandments are, “Be fruitful and Multiply” and “You shall teach them to your children.” Their purpose is that You did not create the world to be empty, but to be inhabited, and that it is for Your glory that You created, fashioned, and perfected it, so that we, our offspring, and all the descendants of your people Israel will know Your Name and study Your Torah.

Thus I entreat You, O Eternal, supreme King of kings. My eyes are fixed on You until You favor me, and hear my prayer, and provide me with sons and daughters who will also be fruitful and multiply, they and their descendents unto all generations, in order that they and we might all engage in the study of Your holy Torah, to learn and to teach, to observe and to do, and to fulfill with love all the words of Your Torah’s teaching. Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah and attach our heart to Your commandments to love and revere Your Name.

Our Father, compassionate Father, grant us all a long and blessed life. Who is like You, compassionate Father, Who in compassion remembers His creatures for life! Remember us for eternal life, as our Forefather Avraham prayed, “If only Yishmael would live before You,” which the Sages interpreted as “…live in reverence of You.”

For this I have come to appeal and plead before You, that my offspring and their descendants be proper, and that You find no imperfection or disrepute in me or them forever. May they be people of peace, truth, goodness and integrity in the eyes of G-d and man. Help them to become practiced in Torah, accomplished in Scriptures, Mishnah, Talmud, Kabbalah, mitzvos, kindness, and good attributes, and to serve you with an inner love and reverence, not merely outwardly. Provide every one of them with their needs with honor, and give them health, honor and strength, good bearing and appearance, grace and loving-kindness. May love and brotherhood reign among them. Provide them with suitable marriage partners of scholarly and righteous parentage who will also be blessed with all that I have asked for my own descendants, since they will share the same fate.

You, the Eternal, know everything that is concealed, and to You all my heart’s secrets are revealed. For all my intention concerning the above is for the sake of Your great and holy Name and Torah. Therefore, answer me, O Eternal, answer me in the merit of our holy Forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov. For the sake of the fathers save the children, so the branches will be like the roots. For the sake of Your servant, David, who is the fourth part of Your Chariot, who sings with Divine inspiration.

A song of ascents. Fortunate is everyone who fears the Eternal, who walks in His ways. When you eat of the toil of your hands, you are fortunate, and good will be yours. Your wife is like a fruitful vine in the inner chambers of your home; your children are like olive shoots around your table. Look! So is blessed the man who fears the Eternal. May the Eternal bless you from Zion, and may you see the good of Jerusalem all the days of your life. May you see your children’s children, peace upon Israel.

Please, O Eternal, Who listens to prayer: May the following verse be fulfilled in me: “‘As for Me,’ says the Eternal, “this My covenant shall remain their very being; My spirit, which rests upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth nor from the mouths of your children, nor from the mouths of your children’s children,” said the Eternal, “from now to all Eternity.” May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be pleasing before You, Eternal, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Shavuos – Not Just Another Uber Driver

The Talmud relates [Pesachim 68b] that Rav Yosef would make a tremendous party on Shavuos. He would say, “If not for this special day (on which the Torah was given), look how many Yosefs there are in the market place”. Rabbi Frand explains “If not for the fact that I as a Jew have that precious gift of Torah, I would literally be ‘just another Joe'”.

On an Uber drive a few years ago, one of my kids got into a discussion with the driver about Judaism. The driver was amazed that a Torah Observant Jew can’t eat whatever they want, can’t wear whatever they want, can’t say whatever they want and can’t do whatever they want. The driver remarked that he does basically anything that he wants.

What the driver missed, and what we often take for granted, is that basic Torah observance, Shabbos, kashrus, etc, makes us great. Chazal teach that Hashem created man with a yetzer hara for desire, egocentricity and laziness and only by following the antidote of Torah and its commandments, can we rise above our base nature and become great human beings, with the possibility of connecting to people and connecting to Hashem with all our actions. When we heed the directives and follow the mitzvos of the Torah we unify the world and create a reality in which “Hashem will be One and His Name will be One”.

The Mesillas Yesharim is structured around the beraisa of R. Pinchas ben Yair which states:
“Torah leads to Watchfulness; Zeal; Cleanliness; Separation; Purity; Saintliness; Humility; Fear of Sin; Holiness; Divine Inspiration; the Revival of the Dead.” It starts with Torah and every step is infused with different aspects of the Torah: the warnings of the Torah, the mitzvos of the Torah, the learning of the Torah, the middos of the Torah and more.

Shavuos is the time for us to raise our commitment to Torah and to growing well beyond an Uber driver in the marketplace. Chag Someach!

Momentary Gains or Lasting Benefits

Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the Bilvavi and the Getting to Know Yourself (Soul, Emotions, Home) seforim has a free download available of Shavous Talks here.

We find three times where the Torah refers to counting: counting the years to Yovel (the jubilee), counting the days for purification of a zavah (VaYikra 15:19), and counting the omer. But a zavah does not make a beracha when she counts. Tosfot (Menachot 65b) explain that with the omer, we can be sure that it will lead to completion, but the zavah might not become pure at this time.

With the omer, then, we are able to begin (and continue) with an awareness of the end. If we do not anticipate an end, there is no blessing (and no requirement to count orally, which is why the zavah need not count orally). In life, too, we must always maintain an awareness of the end, as the Rosh writes that one must always be cognizant of death.

We might ask: Chazal have taught us (Avot 2:16) that “you are not expected to finish the task.” How, then, can one keep the end in mind if he will never reach the end?

If a person is ill, and there is no known remedy for his illness, that does not necessarily mean that he should despair of being cured. Often, there is ongoing research, and a cure might be discovered at a later time. He may want to begin saving his money for when it will hopefully become available. So, too, although one individual cannot single-handedly cause Mashiach to come, he should anticipate that it will come soon, and focus his actions toward that endpoint. Inwardly, a person must always yearn for that goal.

The value of this yearning is that he will have a completely different perspective on his actions. For example, if a person plans to move to a nicer home as soon as he can afford to, he will not invest more money in his current home than absolutely necessary. The opposite will be the case with someone who plans to stay in his home for many years. So, too, if we focus on the end (the times of Mashiach or our own deaths) our attitude toward this life and this world will be much different than if we were focused solely on our current state. We would be much less focused on material things. We would still take care of our needs here, but be aware that it is all temporary.

A person would not invest all his money in something unstable. Chazal in fact have advised that one divide his assets among cash, land, and merchandise. This world is unstable, and we must be aware of this fact not only with regard to money.

To illustrate: A person at a red light would not turn off his car engine, because he expects to move soon. But I was once in a traffic jam because the police stopped traffic for hours while they were looking for a criminal, and people parked their cars in the street and got out while they waited. Life is more like a car at a red light. We must be ready for any change in life. This world is full of drastic changes.

These changes in the world serve to remind us not to take the material world too seriously. We must focus on what has real permanence. For example, when a person seeks a wife, he is very careful, and he would not marry someone unstable, because marriage is a long-term commitment.

What has permanence here is the spiritual level. If a person seeks truth and stability, he must be aware of the instability of this world, and not take it too seriously, and on the other hand, connect to the permanent world of Hashem and the Torah. These relate to the eternal world. This awareness will enable us to accept the Torah properly on Shavuot and earn eternity.

Calibrating Covid Fear

In the Ninth chapter of Mesillas Yesharim on Zerizus (Positive Mitzvah Performance), the Ramchal explores the factors that undermine the proper performance of mitzvos. One of the undermining factors he discusses is fear. The Ramchal makes an important distinction between justified fear and excessive fear. Excessive fear creates an atmosphere which inhibits proper mitzvah performance.

In the last month or so, vaccinations have been effective in reducing the health risk of Covid. The CDC website states that if you’ve been fully vaccinated then you can gather indoors with fully vaccinated people without wearing a mask or staying 6 feet apart. They do add the caveat that you should avoid medium or large gatherings.

The difficulty with Covid is that it is travelling across the continuum from justified fear to possible excessive fear, in mostly vaccinated Shuls. There is no exact measurement to determine whether a Covid fear is excessive, and therefore different Shuls have implemented a wide range of mask policies.

Let us pray that we continue on the path of transforming our Shuls from Houses of Fear to Houses of Trust in G-d.

Pirkei Avos – Chapter Three

As many of you know, there is a widespread Jewish custom of learning Pirkei Avos in the six week period between Pesach and Shavous. Some have the custom to keep on learning a perek a week until Rosh Hoshana.

Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld of Beit Shemesh, Israel has an excellent commentary to Pirkei Avos over at Torah.org.

A few years ago, to facilitate review of Pirkei Avos, I cut and pasted Rabbi Rosenthal’s translation into a document so that I could print off the perek of the week and keep it in my wallet for review. Rabbi Yaakov Menken, the man administering Torah.org, Cross-Currents.com and other spreading Torah projects was gracious enough to allow the document to be downloaded here.

Here is the link for the English Translation of Pirkei Avos.

Here is the translation for Chapter Three:

Chapter 3
1. “Akavia the son of Mehalalel said, consider three things and you will not come to sin. Know from where you have come, to where you are heading, and before Whom you will give justification and accounting. From where have you come – from a putrid drop; to where are you heading – to a place of dirt, worms and maggots; and before Whom will you give justification and accounting – before the King of kings, the Holy One blessed be He.”
2. “Rabbi Chanina the deputy High Priest said, pray for the welfare of the government (lit., monarchy), for if not for its fear, a person would swallow his fellow live.”
3. “Rabbi Chanina the son of Tradyon said, if two people sit together and do not share words of Torah between them, it is a company of scorners, as the verse says, ‘in the company of scorners he (the righteous man) did not sit [rather in G-d’s Torah was his desire…]’ (Psalms 1:1-2). But if two people sit and share words of Torah between them the Divine Presence rests between them, as the verse says, ‘Then spoke those who fear G-d to one another, and G-d listened and heard, and it was written in a book of remembrance before Him, for those who fear G-d and regard His Name’ (Malachi 3:16). From here we may learn about two. How do we know that even one who sits and studies Torah G-d designates a reward for him? The verse says, ‘Let him sit alone and be silent, for it (a reward) will be placed upon him’ (Lamentations 3:28).”
4. “Rabbi Shimon said, three people who have eaten at the same table and did not speak words of Torah are as if they had eaten from the sacrifices of dead [idols], as the verse states ‘For all such tables are full of vomit and filth without room’ (Isaiah 28:8). But three who have eaten at the same table and did speak words of Torah are as if they had eaten from the Lord’s table, as it states ‘And he (the angel) said to me, this is the table that is before the Lord’ (Ezekiel 41:22).”
5. “Rabbi Chanina the son of Chachiniye said, one who stays awake at night or one who travels on the road alone and leaves his heart open to idleness – behold, he bears the guilt for his own soul.”
6. “Rabbi Nechunia the son of Hakanah said, anyone who accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah, the yoke of government and the yoke of earning a livelihood will be removed from him. Anyone who casts off of himself the yoke of Torah, the yokes of government and earning a livelihood will be placed upon him.”
7. “Rabbi Chalafta the son of Dosa of K’far Chananya said, if ten people sit together and study Torah, the Divine Presence dwells among them, as the verse states ‘The L-rd stands in the assembly of G-d’ (Psalms 82:1). How do we know this even for five? As it states ‘He has established his bundle on the land’ (Amos 9:6). How do we know even three? As it states ‘In the midst of judges He judges’ (Psalms 82:1). How do we know even two? As it states ‘Then those who feared the L-rd spoke one to the other, and G-d listened and heard’ (Malachi 3:16). How do we know even one? As it states ‘In every place where My Name is mentioned I will come to you and bless you’ (Exodus 20:21).”
8. “Rabbi Elazar of Bartosa said, give Him from His own, for you and your possessions are His. And so does the verse say regarding King David, ‘For everything is from You, and from Your hands we have given to You.'”
9. “Rabbi Yaakov said, one who is walking along the road and is studying [Torah], and then interrupts his studies and says ‘How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field!’ – Scriptures considers it as if he himself bears the guilt for his soul.”
10. “Rabbi Dostai the son of Yannai said in the name of Rabbi Meir, whoever forgets anything from his Torah learning, Scripture considers it as if he bears the guilt for his own soul, as the verse says, ‘Only take heed and guard yourself well, lest you forget the things which your eyes saw’ (Deuteronomy 4:9). One might think this applies even if his studies were too difficult for him? The verse therefore continues, ‘and lest they be removed from your heart all the days of your life.’ Thus, one does not bear the guilt for his soul unless he sits and removes them from his heart.”
11. “Rabbi Chanina the son of Dosa said, anyone whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom will endure. And anyone whose wisdom precedes his fear of sin, his wisdom will not endure.”
12. “He (Rabbi Chanina) used to say, anyone whose good deeds are greater than his wisdom, his wisdom will endure. Anyone whose wisdom is greater than his good deeds, his wisdom will not endure.”
13. “He (Rabbi Chanina) used to say, anyone who is pleasing to his fellows is pleasing to G-d. Anyone who is not pleasing to his fellows is not pleasing to G-d.”
14. “Rabbi Dosa the son of Horkinos said, sleep in the morning, wine in the afternoon, the chatter of the youth, and sitting in the gatherings of the ignorant drive a person out of the world.”
15. “Rabbi Elazar of Modin said, one who desecrates sacred objects, one who disgraces the festivals, one who shames his fellow in public, one who annuls the covenant of our forefather Abraham, or one who interprets the Torah not according to Jewish law – even if he has Torah [study] and good deeds, he has no share in the World to Come.”
16. “Rabbi Yishmael said, be yielding to a superior, gentle to the young, and receive every person with happiness.”
17. “Rabbi Akiva said, jesting and lightheadedness accustom a person to immorality. The oral transmission is a protective fence around the Torah. Tithes are a protective fence for wealth. Vows are a protective fence for abstinence. A protective fence for wisdom is silence.”
18. “He (Rabbi Akiva) used to say, beloved is man for he was created in G-d’s image. It is a greater love that it was made known to him that he was created in G-d’s image, as it is said, ‘For in the image of G-d did He make man’ (Genesis 9:6). Beloved is Israel for they are called the children of the L-rd. It is a greater love that it was made known to them that they are the children of the L-rd, as it is said, ‘You are children to the L-rd your G-d’ (Deuteronomy 14:1). Beloved is Israel that they were given a precious utensil (the Torah). It is an greater love that it was made known to them that they were given a precious utensil, as it is said ‘For I have given you a good possession; do not forsake My Torah’ (Proverbs 4:2).”
19. “Everything is foreseen, yet free will is given. The world is judged with goodness, and all is according to the majority of deeds.”
20. “He (Rabbi Akiva) used to say, everything is given on collateral, and a net is spread over all the living. The store is open, the Storekeeper extends credit, the ledger is open, the hand writes, and whoever wants to borrow may come borrow. The collectors make their rounds constantly every day, and they collect from a person whether he realizes it or not, and they have what to rely upon. The judgment is true, and everything is prepared for the banquet (of Leviathan).”
21. “Rabbi Elazar ben (son of) Azariah said: If there is no Torah there is no proper conduct; if there is no proper conduct there is no Torah. If there is no wisdom there is no fear of G-d; if there is no fear of G-d there is no wisdom. If there is no knowledge there is no understanding; if there is no understanding there is no knowledge. If there is no flour (sustenance) there is no Torah; if there is no Torah there is no flour.”
22. “He (Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah) used to say, anyone whose wisdom is greater than his deeds to what is he comparable? To a tree whose branches are many and whose roots are few, and the wind comes and turns it over. As it is said ‘And he will be like a lonely tree in a wasteland, and it will not see when good comes. It will dwell on parched soil in the desert, a salted land, uninhabited’ (Jeremiah 17:6). But one whose deeds are greater than his wisdom to what is he comparable? To a tree whose branches are few and whose roots are many, that even if all the winds in the world blow against it, they do not move it from its place. As it is said ‘And he shall be like a tree planted on the water, and towards the stream it spreads its roots, and it will not see when heat comes. Its leaves will be fresh, in a year of drought it will not worry, and it shall not cease yielding fruit’ (ibid. 17:8).”
23. “Rabbi Elazar ben (son of) Chisma said, The laws of the offerings of pairs of birds and the beginning of menstrual periods – these are essential laws. Astronomy and the numeric values [of the Hebrew letters] are the spices to wisdom.”

Fifty Ways to Meet Your Lover (Sefirat HaOmer)

Mystical writings make this time period analogous to a woman preparing for union with her lover. She purifies herself for seven days. Seven is also the number of types of impurity that must be eliminated, and in our case linked to seven weeks, the time period between Passover and the Biblical holiday of Shavuot, forty-nine days called Sefirat HaOmer, “Counting the Omer”. God reveals all wisdom that there is to know on the fiftieth day, Shavuot, symbolized by the consummation of a marriage. In other words, to learn wisdom is to become one with the Infinite.

Therefore “spiritual purification” is a theme of these fifty days. Each day is designated for us to pray for and work towards a small piece of spirituality.

Don’t get me wrong, anyone who wants God’s wisdom can have it. He loves everyone and wants to give to them. But the more we are equipped to deal with it the more useful it will be.

There’s an old story of a person who seeks to speak with a wise Zen master.

As the proposed disciple sits before the master, the disciple begins to expound on his own knowledge to impress the master. The master stays quiet and begins to pour tea into a cup for the visitor. After the cup is full the master continues to pour until the tea is pouring over the sides causing the disciple to jump up and yell “Stop, the cup is full and can hold no more!”

The wise Zen master replies, “And what about you? Are you full of wisdom? If so, there is no more room for me to teach you anything.”

Wisdom is being poured out from above, but we have to be ready to receive it. Are we humble enough to know how little we know about marriage, parenting, happiness, and meaning? If so we will hit the jackpot.


Step by Step

We are commanded to count each and every day between Passover and Shavuot. This implies that spiritual growth is best achieved step by step, one day at a time. Our soul wants to soar straight to the Infinite. Our body also wants to become holy overnight so it doesn’t have to work. The real path, though, is to fire up a burning desire for purity every single day, working step by step to make progress on the ladder to the Heavens.

Seven Shepherds

One path the sages recommend to grab this opportunity is to emulate the Seven Shepherds. Each week is designated for a different holy one to try to be like.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David each represents a different character trait. The first week is dedicated to Abraham, the second to Isaac, and so on. There are seven kabbalistic terms in Hebrew that do not lend themselves to an English translation so I will describe an aspect of them instead.

1st Week:
Abraham exemplifies the quality of Chesed, a trait evidenced in his extreme love of mankind. This first week, in order to purify yourself and tap into the flow of Divine assistance, we can look for the positive things in others that bring to the surface that natural love in our hearts for all humanity. If the Almighty can love all His children, so can we.

2nd Week:
Isaac exemplifies Gevura, a trait of discipline and inner strength. He never wavered from whatever he deemed the will of God. To imitate him we can focus our attention on things we are doing that we know are not God’s will and eradicate them.

3rd Week:
Jacob is Tiferet, the ability to be in harmony with all forces. Sometimes he fought, sometimes he bowed. He knew how to handle every single person that came his way. He even had two names which showed his flexibility. He blessed each of his children, showing that he spent time considering the nature of each child, trying to give each one what he needed, encouragement, rebuke, insight, etc. We can do this too by thinking deeply about each of our close family and friends and think about what each person needs.

4th Week:
Moses is Netzach, the Torah’s eternal conduit. We can emulate him by studying the insights of the Torah and try to remove any of our own personal influence on the insights, looking for the pure unadulterated truth.

5th Week:
Aaron is Hod, a trait which made him beloved by all who knew him. He loved peace and did everything he could to bring peace into the world at every opportunity. We all want people to get along, but how many of us are doing anything about it? This fifth week we can emulate Aaron by doing something practical and specific that brings more peace in the world.

6th Week:
Joseph is Yesod, similar to Jacob’s ability to relate to all people, Joseph’s ability was to be able to bond with, join, and become a part of each and every person he met. He easily and successfully became a trusted assistant wherever he went, whether with Jacob, Potiphar (an Egyptian official), the jailer of the dungeon, or to Pharaoh himself. He was immediately trusted because he truly felt the pain of each person he met. We can imitate him by trying to become one with the people we know and their challenges to the point they truly trust us.

7th Week:
David is Malchut, a trait that allowed him to connect his own royal power and tie it to the Almighty. Power corrupts unless you constantly remind yourself that your power is only the Divine putting you in a position like a marionette puppet. When all others were afraid of Goliath, David said, “Are you going to let this guy curse the Almighty? HaShem will help you defeat him.” David knew that the Almighty runs the show at all times. “To You are the greatness, the strength, the harmony, the permanence, and the glory….” We can look at all of our abilities or power roles this week and see how we are merely a conduit for the Almighty.

If you try to emulate each character trait for one week of the seven week period you will experience a new type of enlightenment at the end. This is a simple straightforward approach to the Sefirah period. A more complicated approach uses all seven traits each week. Because each trait is incomplete without all the other six. You can’t have real love like Abraham if you don’t include Isaac’s awe of God. Otherwise you’ll transgress God’s laws to fulfill your love. You’ll spoil your children and become a doormat to your spouse. Each trait properly includes all the others. So a complicated approach to the 50 days has a different combination of two traits each day.

Our tradition says that the Israelites accomplished this when they left Egypt and fifty days later received the Torah.

Riding the Escalator of Life

Sometimes we get a special gift. When you work on spirituality in a consistent way the Almighty opens up a gate for you that you might not have imagined. If you look for reminders of what you are working on you will also notice on a daily basis how the Almighty is guiding and directing your efforts at self-growth. This daily testament to His role in our daily life is comforting and keeps us connected. But when we get that special gift, sometimes a whole new world opens up.

Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) had an angel come to him and teach him many secrets because of his consistent study of the Mishna, the Oral Tradition. We are not all going to have such a special and holy event happen to us like that but each on our own individual level will receive a boost.

Kind of like that way someone gets “discovered” after plugging away for many years at something. Kimya Dawson was a relatively unknown recording a performing artist for years until one day an actress in a movie called “Juno” recommended her recording with the Moldy Peaches for the soundtrack which became a chartbuster. Now Kimya Dawson is “suddenly” a recognized star. Suddenly….after years of continuous effort. In the spiritual world it happens too.

Whatever area of growth we want to grab a hold of, consistency and continuity will be helpful, and sometimes they will be the cause of a major leap that propels us into a higher level. Our small path of steps just might be turn into a springboard. Now is the time to take the first step.

First Published on May 14, 2008

Matzah with a Shmear of Spiritual Sensitivity

We experience the world through our fives senses which makes our primary orientation a physical one. We also experience qualities like love, caring, gratitude and justice which are not perceivable through our five senses. Let’s call those qualities – spiritual sensitivities. Another spiritual sensitivity is the awareness that there is a loving G-d, Who created the world and wants to help us bring the world to a more perfect place of universal love, caring, gratitude and justice.

The path to perfecting the world and ourselves is through quieting our self-involved physical sensitivities and increasing our spiritual sensitivies. Passover provides us with a tremendous opportunity with the mitzvah of eating Matzah. Food is a tremendous source of physical and emotional pleasure and the Torah encourages us to fully experience that pleasure on Shabbos and the Holidays. However, the primary spiritual purpose of food is to provide us with the energy to carry out the worthwhile day to day activities of our life. On Passover we are instructed to eat Matzah, a plain basic staple of water and flour, to increase our sensitivity to the spiritual nature of food.

Spiritual sensitivity provides us with increased life fulfillment opportunities in every bite we take and every step we make. We can transcend the limits of our own physicality and look at the constant connection opportunities with our fellow human beings and with G-d. We should all be blessed with enhanced spiritual sensitivity this Passover.

Happy Passover!

Pesach – Internalizing Your Knowledge

By Rav Itamar Schwartz the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh.
Click here for the Bilvavi Hagaddah.
Click here for a number of Drashos on Pesach from Rav Schwartz.

Leaving Egypt – and then Receiving the Torah

First we left Egypt, and then we came to Har Sinai to receive the Torah.

It is written, “And you shall know today, and you shall return the matter to your heart.” Our avodah is always first to know the facts, and then to internalize our mind’s knowledge into our heart.

The Egyptian exile deterred us from receiving the Torah. As long as we were in Egypt, we could not receive the Torah; we have to leave it in order to become purified at Har Sinai and receive the Torah. In Egypt, we would not have been able to internalize the Torah had we received it. In Egypt, there was “bricks and mortar”, and this personified the exile. What exactly are these “bricks and mortar” that held us back from receiving the Torah? It wasn’t just that we had cruel physical labor. It was a spiritual kind of bricks and mortar – a blockage that held us back from receiving the Torah.

There were two layers to the redemption. There was a physical redemption, which took place when we actually left Egypt, in the physical sense. But there was also a spiritual layer to the redemption: the redemption that took place in our souls, enabling us to receive the Torah.

Although the physical redemption happened a long time ago, the spiritual redemption to our souls happens every year. Let us learn how we can merit to have the yearly spiritual redemption during this time – to reach the level of receiving the Torah, the level of internalizing our knowledge.

Removing The “Blockage of the Heart”

In the Haggadah we express, “By your blood shall you live” – which the Sages explain this to refer to the blood of the korban pesach (paschal sacrifice) and the blood of bris milah (circumcision) What is the connection between korbon pesach and bris milah? Simply it is because in order to eat the korban pesach, one had to be circumcised, as the Gemara says. But the deeper meaning is that one has to circumcise his “orlas halev” – the blockage that is on his heart.

There exist two kinds of orlah (blockages) which we remove – a physical blockage which exists in the part of the body that is circumcised by bris milah, and a spiritual kind of blockage, which is present on the heart. This is called orlas halev. When our heart is blocked, the Torah knowledge in our mind isn’t able to penetrate into our heart.

On Pesach, we were commanded to become circumcised; the simple meaning of this, as we said, was because we need to undergo bris milah in order to eat from the korbon pesach. But the deeper meaning is that we had to remove our orlas halev, “blockage of our heart” that was on us – as it is written, “And you shall circumcise the foreskin of your hearts.”

We must remove the barrier between our mind and heart, so that our mind’s knowledge can settle in our heart. And it has to be “in” our heart, not just on our heart.

In order to eat the korbon pesach, we had to have a bris milah. As we explained, the deeper meaning of this is that we had to remove our “orlas halev” in order to eat the korban pesach. In Egypt, we removed some of the blockage as we began to cry out to Hashem from our heart, but this process was not yet complete until we left Egypt, when we actually received bris milah – which was not just a physical act of circumcision, but a removal of the blockage on our heart.

How We Can Accomplish Internalization

How do we internalize the knowledge of our mind into our heart? We get to know the Torah by learning it well, but how do we internalize it into our heart? In the works of our Rabbis, there are two general ways described in how we can accomplish it.

The First Way: Da’as

One way is as follows. In our brain, we have three “minds” going on – three different mental abilities: Chochmah, Tevunah, and Daas. Chochmah is what one learns from his teacher. Tevunah is when we think on our own, and Daas is when we connect to our knowledge. Daas is when a person is always thinking about Torah, because he connects to the knowledge of his mind. Daas is an inner kind of thinking, not a superficial kind of thinking.

When a person merely intellectualizes about his learning, he’s either using Chochmah or Tevunah, but this isn’t yet Daas. Daas is only when a person thinks all the time about his learning because he is truly connected to his learning; from his deep connection to the Torah, he thinks about it as a result.

When a person uses his Daas, he is connected all the time to his learning as he thinks constantly of Torah – and in this way, his mind’s knowledge enters his heart. This is when a person learns Torah along with emunah in Hashem in his life. The Torah then penetrates into his heart.

The Second Way: Verbal Repetition

The second method brought by our Rabbis on how we can internalize is by making an direct imprint on our heart, and this is accomplished when we review matters repeatedly using our simple emunah. As it is written in the possuk, “I believed, for I spoke.” When we constantly repeat a fact, it eventually settles into our heart, where it becomes internalized knowledge.

Pharoah knew that Hashem existed, but he didn’t internalize this information. Pharoah means peh rah, “evil mouth.” In other words, he didn’t use his mouth in the right way, and thus he didn’t internalize his mind’s knowledge.

So one way to internalize is to use daas, which is by learning Torah in a way that we connect to it; and this is accomplished when we learn Torah together with having emunah in Hashem. The second method to internalize is to use our power of speech, to affect our heart.

The Third, Deeper Way: Repeating The Facts Of Our Da’as To Our Heart

But there is also a third way, which is deeper than the above two ways, and it combines the two methods together: to speak to ourselves facts that we know from our daas, with the intention that it should affect our heart.

This is also the deeper meaning behind why we count Sefiras HaOmer for 49 days. It is because by repeating to ourselves that today is another day towards Shavuos, it eventually internalizes in our heart; through the power of constant verbal repetition, the facts of our brain settle into our heart and become internalized.

Most people when they learn Torah are only using the lower power of Chochmah, which is located in the brain. This is mere intellectual knowledge, and it doesn’t always affect a person. But the higher, deeper kind of Chochmah is called Chochmas HaLev – the wisdom of the heart – and it is rare. It is accessed when we verbalize our mind’s knowledge to ourselves and we repeat the facts, over and over again, until it penetrates our heart. It then becomes Chochmas HaLev.

Feel The Contradiction Between Your Mind and Heart

First we must realize, though, that our mind and heart are in vast contradiction with each other. There are many contradictions going on between our heart and mind, and therefore, our mind and heart are very far from each other. Our heart is full of various desires that are evil, even though our mind knows that it’s wrong.

Desires, jealousy and honor-seeking are negative emotions that are present in our heart. These negative emotions contradict what we know in our mind. Feel the contradiction going on between your mind and heart – and let it bother you! When you feel very bothered by the great contradiction going on between your mind and heart, you can then realize that you must work to internalize your mind’s knowledge into your heart.

It is not enough to simply ignore these negative emotions that pass through us and hope that they will go away on their own. Rather, we should seek the truth, and instead we should seek to change our heart, by repeating our mind’s facts to our heart, through repeated verbalization.

In today’s generation, our heart is for the most part negatively affected, and we often don’t feel at all how it’s affected. But out heart is being affected more and more, for the worse, as our life goes on. If we don’t seek to change our heart, our heart only gets worse and worse as we get older, and we will only continue to get negatively influenced by our surroundings.

In order to survive the dismal situation of today’s times, we must continuously attempt to internalize our mind’s knowledge into our heart. We have to go through a constant purification process within ourselves. Our heart has to literally burn for Torah, for mitzvos, for love and fear of Hashem, for a bond with Him. It has to burn like a fire, or else we get worse and worse as our life goes on. Every Jew needs to have a heart that is actuallyburning for a bond with Hashem and for His Torah and mitzvos.

Unless a person develops a burning desire in his heart to internalize the facts he knows, he will remain his whole life and end it with his initial level of orlas halev.

We must bring our life to a halt (at least once) and seek how we can internalize our knowledge, how we can acquire a heart that burns for Hashem. A person might go his whole life and know a lot of Torah, but in his heart, he is a total ignoramus, and not only that, but his heart is evil from his youth. Even if he’s a prominent person when it comes to Torah knowledge – even if he gives shiurim and wrote sefarim – it doesn’t mean he has internalized the Torah into his heart…

If a person seeks to change his heart constantly, he will be much less affected by society. A person needs to realize that our surroundings place us in grave danger. We can’t become complacent! If we let ourselves become complacent in today’s times, we are in mortal danger.

To summarize: We must each seek to internalize our mind’s knowledge into our hearts – through our daas, and through repeating the facts with our mouth. And we must set aside time to reflect about important matters, (as Reb Yisrael Salanter would do, to go over one statement of Chazal and repeat it numerous times, passionately).

We need to do this all the time, not just once in a while: we must always seek to internalize the facts into our heart, by repeating to ourselves the facts that we know. Hashem created us with a lev tahor, a “pure heart” – and when we feel our pure heart, we will feel as if we have just converted anew to Judaism.

(Of course, we need a brain too, and not just a heart. We cannot live with just our mind or just our heart – we need to connect them both together.)

We need to have a life brimming with Torah, mitzvos and emunah. This is the true redemption from Egypt.

May we merit to leave the blockage on our hearts, and instead come to “know” Hashem – and to internalize the knowledge about Him in our heart.

The Seder in Four Hours, Five Minutes or One Minute

The Beyond BT Guide to the Seder contains all the steps of the seder along with some commentary and halachic instructions.

A few years ago I edited the above guide and compiled a Five Minute Seder for a non-observant friend and his family. Five minutes may be stretching it, but it’s pretty bare bones for those who have trouble going through the whole thing.

And here’s the One Minute explanation if you’re really pressed for time.

The Events of the Exodus
The process of the Exodus began when our forefather Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, and his family settled in Egypt as the honored guests of the Pharaoh at that time. The process continued through the Jewish enslavement by the Egyptians; the 10 nature-defying plagues prophesized by Moshe and activated by G-d over a period of 12 months; the subsequent release of the approximately 3 million Jews to freedom after the plague of the death of the first born; the splitting of the Red Sea 7 days after their release; and the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai 7 weeks after their release.

The Centrality of the Exodus
The centrality of the Exodus in Judaism is predicated on the fact that the Jewish people were freed and separated as a unique nation through the clear actions of G-d Himself. Besides the physical freedom achieved, G-d chose us to be the world’s spiritual leaders by giving us the mitzvos of the Torah at Mount Sinai The mitzvos free us from a purely animal-like physical existence, to one in which we can elevate all our actions to be spiritual and G-d connected. Passover is a time where we commemorate the Exodus and renew our spiritual focus.

The Seder
The Seder with its focus on the telling of the story enable us to experientially reconnect with the slavery and freedom of the Exodus and express our appreciation to G-d for our redemption and selection as His chosen people. The salt water in which the green vegetable is dipped and the bitter herbs are associated with our bondage. The four cups of wine and the festival meal help us relive our freedom.

The Holiday of Matzah
The Matzah is the central component of both the Seder and the 8 days of Passover. Matzah, consisting of just flour and water was our no frills food when we were slaves in Egypt. It’s also a symbol of our freedom because we hastily left Egypt without time to bake bread.

On a spiritual level, the leaven in bread makes it more digestible and flavorous. This is appropriate for the rest of the year when our main challenge is to integrate the physical into the spiritual. On Passover, we eat only Matzah and abstain from the physically oriented leaven. This allows us to keep spiritually focused as we recharge our spiritual mission and focus during the holiday of Passover.

TEN WAYS to help you and YOUR CHILDREN have a more Meaningful and Inspiring PESACH SEDER

Use these suggestions to infuse new meaning and excitement into your seder and create a lasting experience for you and your family.

1.Make the most of your Seder and best fulfill the mitzvah of V’higadita L’vincha by staying focused on telling the actual story of Yetzias Mitzrayim; concentrate on the events and their lessons.

2. Transform Yetzias Mitzrayim from a story into a reality by celebrating the Seder like you celebrate a Simcha in your own family. Speak about it vividly, personally and enthusiastically…you’ll inspire yourself and your children.

3. Prepare for the Seder! Spend time studying books and Midrashim that elaborate specifically on the details of each miracle to help your children appreciate the extent of Hashem’s kindness.

4. Make Pesach personal and relevant to your children. Use your discussion about the amazing miracles of Yetzias Mitzrayim as a means of opening their eyes to the miracles Hashem performs for us every day.

5. Show your children how so much of the Pesach Seder revolves around them, demonstrating how much Hashem cares about every child and values each one as an essential member of Klal Yisroel.

6. Involve your children in the Pesach Seder. Prepare stimulating and challenging questions that will guide them to understand the lessons of the Haggadah and be an active participant in the Seder.

7. Practice the lesson of the Four Sons during your Seder by making a particular effort to involve each child (and adult!) in a way that best suits his or her unique personality, style and level.

8. Take the time to patiently answer your children’s questions. If you don’t know the answer, create a powerful Chinuch experience by asking a rabbi and exploring the issue… together with your child.

9. Reinforce their Emunah through the Pesach Seder by explaining that the miracles of Yetzias Mitzrayim irrefutably demonstrated Hashem’s complete control over the world to millions of eyewitnesses. We attest to this truth every year on the Seder night.

10. Inspire yourself by remembering that tonight Jewish parents around the world are passing on a glorious 3,320 year old legacy to their children as their parents and ancestors have done before them. Realize that the Seder that you create for your children will inspire them for the rest of their lives and shape the future Seder that they will make for their children.

The Pesach Seder:
A Unique Opportunity to Instill Emunah in Our Children

The Mitvah of telling the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim is primarily focused on our children and family. Its main purpose is to instill in their hearts the full knowledge of Hashem’s sovereignty and the magnitude of His strength and miracles. One should explain the story to them in the language that they understand to make them aware of the extent of the wonders that Hashem performs. It is not sufficient to explain just the main points of Yetzias Mitzrayim written in the Haggadah. Instead, we should describe all of the miracles vividly as they are depicted in the Gemara, Midrashim and other Seforim. (Based on Yesod V’Shoresh Ha’avoda 9:6)

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Perspectives on Pesach Hotels

An article was many years ago Rabbi Jonathon Rosenblum, titled Five Star Pesach:

I will never forget an address by Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman at an Agudath Israel of America convention on the topic “Living a Life of Ruchnios amidst Gashmius.” I had never before heard Rabbi Wachsman, and I practically jumped out of my seat when he thundered: This topic represents a fundamental mistake. There is no ruchnius amidst gashmius. To the extent that a person is living in the world of gashmius he is removed from ruchnius!

I was reminded of those words recently on a recent trip to Los Angeles, where I had a rare opportunity to speak with a rav whose wisdom has always impressed me. In the course of our conversation, he asked to me, “What would you say is the greatest threat to Yiddishkeit today?” I leaned forward eagerly, confident that he would mention one of my favorite subjects. But I must admit that his answer would not have been on my top ten-list.

“Pesach in hotels,” turned out to be the winning answer. And my friend’s central criticism was similar to that of Rabbi Wachsman: the Pesach hotel industry takes what should be one of the ultimate spiritual experiences of every Jew’s life and encases it in a thick wrapper of materialism. Read the advertisements, he told me: “No gebrochts” right next to “24 hour tea bar;” “Daily daf hayomi” next to “Karate, go-carts, and jeeping for the kids.”

Rabbi Horowitz had his own take on this in The Greatest Threat to Yiddishkeit:

My dear chaver and colleague Reb Yonoson Rosenblum (#204; Five-Star Pesach) describes how he “practically jumped out of his seat,” listening to Rabbi Wachsman “thunder” that there is “no ruchniyus amid gashmiyus.” Well, I practically jumped out of my seat when I read Reb Yonoson’s quote of a Rav who claimed that Pesach programs are “the greatest threat to Yiddishkeit today.”

I do not know which Rav he was referring to, but I will gladly forward my home phone calls and those of Project YES to that Rav for a month. After listening to the terrible and very real challenges that we face individually and communally for thirty days and sleepless nights, I dare say that he may reconsider his thoughts as to what “the greatest threat to Yiddishkeit” is.

Rabbi Rosenblum continued with Pesach Hotels: A Second Look and Rabbi Horowitz published an opposing opinion in Rabbi Horowitz, I Beg to Differ.

Which leads to Azriella Jaffe’s take on the subject in a Yated letter to the Editor:

5/5/08
To: Letter to the Editor, Yated

I felt I needed to respond to the strongly worded sentiments of late that sounds something like: “I-would-never-go-to-a-hotel for Pesach! What is the frum world coming to, that Jews with money pay to escape the workload of preparing for Pesach, and thus, miss the entire spiritual meaning of the holiday?”

Until this Pesach, I was one of those who felt something between envy, disdain, and plenty of negative judgment towards the hotel-Pesach crowd. I’ve done a 180 degree turn, and I hope that Hashem will forgive me for my regrettable, previous inability to give benefit of the doubt. Allow me to explain.

I am an author and speaker on Jewish topics by profession, and I was contacted by the organizer of a Pesach hotel program with this offer: “If you’ll give over workshops/speeches for our attendees on the Shabbos and Yomim Tovim of Pesach, we’d love to have your family join us as well.” Now, I had a dilemma. This was a magnificent opportunity for a professional and family experience we would never have otherwise; how could I turn it down? But I was philosophically against the hotel scene, so what should I do? After consulting with my husband and my Rav, we agreed to give it a try this year. Not only were we all pleasantly surprised, I see the entire scene differently now.

What I didn’t realize until I met, and talked with, numerous guests, is that none of the guests in the hotel that I met were there because they are lazy. They are there with a story. A mother with cancer who can’t possibly make Pesach. A divorced father whose kids are with their mother for Pesach. A Bubbe in her late seventies who realizes that she can no longer handle 27 extended guests in her home for the Yomim Tovim, and they have the financial means to treat the family for a gathering at the hotel instead, so why not? Elderly couples whose married children are now making Sederim with their inlaws. Older singles who don’t want to be spending all of Pesach at relative’s homes who look with pity and disdain at their single status. Houses under renovation, Jews who had some kind of major nisayon this year, (or in some cases, two or three major nisyonos!) and they just “need a break.” Jews who find the shiurim and nightly entertainment particularly uplifting, and they realize that their spirits need an infusion of “spark.”

Yes, the food is delicious, and it’s superb not to have to wash a dish, or scrub the house down before Pesach. It certainly is a vacation. Yes, the Sederim are different when you aren’t in the privacy of your own home, and perhaps not ideal for some families. No question about it – there is truth to the concern that we mustn’t abandon our responsibility to pass along to our children how Pesach, (and all of its relevant mitzvos), is prepared in one’s own home. The hotel scene may not be necessary, appropriate or even enjoyable for many of us. But I urge all of us, as a community, to withhold judgment. I now understand that for many in our community, Pesach in a hotel does not substitute for a spiritual Pesach experience, but rather, it makes a kosher, meaningful Pesach possible.

Originally Published June 2, 2008

Missing an Opportunity

People come to Shul on Shabbos morning for one of the following main reasons: 1) The Davening; 2) The Rabbi; 3) The Socialization.

Some attribute the spectacular rise of Covid backyard minyans, to the fact that socialization is the main driver for many, and the backyard minyanim provide a better socialization venue. They’re like Shteibels on steroids, where the participants make the rules.

I personally value the socialization aspect of our Shuls very highly, and long for the days when we can gather for a kiddush, Shalosh Seudos and public shiurim. However, I think we have unfortunately missed an opportunity for serious spiritual growth through improved davening.

Remember our renewed commitments to davening as we prayed alone in our homes for 10 Covid weeks? And now that we’re back, what happened? Yes, we have to deal with the whos, wheres and how longs of social distanced davening. But when we’ve stepped into that first brocha of Shemoneh Esrai, what’s our excuse? Maybe it’s only me, but I suspect others have also not taken full advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity.

It’s not too late. We can still show Hashem how much we appreciate the return to our Shuls.
You give Hashem your attention for 7 minutes, and He’ll give you the world.

Preparing Your Soul for Pesach

Rabbi Itamar Shwartz author of Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh and the Getting to Know Your Self/Soul/Emotions/Thoughts series has some great articles for Soul Preparation for Pesach.

Pesach Talks

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Rabbi Akiva Tatz has some amazing Pesach Shiurim here.

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Torah Anytime has hundreds of shiurim on Pesach.

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YU Torah has hundreds of shiurim on Pesach.

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Aish has many articles on Pesach here.

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The Haggadah relates that:

In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Mitzrayim, as it is says: “You shall tell your child on that day, it is because of this that Hashem did for me when I left Mitzrayim.”

Rabbi Moshe Gordon explores some of the classical approaches to understanding and fulfilling this Mitzvah in this mp3 on Leaving Mitzraim.

And here is an amazing series of Shiurim by Rabbi Gordon on the Seder and the Haggadah which covers the major Rishonim, Achronim and Poskim on the mitzvos of Pesach night and the Hagaddah.

Seder
Kadesh and Arba Kosos
Urchatz Karpas Yachatz
Hallel Rachtza Matza Heseiba
Maror Korech Shulchan Orech
Afikomen Barech End of Hallel Nirtza after Seder

Haggadagh
Intro to Sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim
HaLachma Anya Akiras HaShulchan Intro to Ma Nishtana
Ma Nishtana
Avadim Hayeinu Arami Oved Avi
Arami Oved Avi 2
Makos End of Magid

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How Can Everyone Make Purim More Meaningful and Really Take Advantage of This Great Day

From the Weekly Bilvavi email. (send an email to subscribe@bilvavi.net)
Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh.

QUESTION What is the avodah for both men and women and Purim, and how can everyone make Purim more meaningful and really take advantage of this great day?

ANSWER There are a lot of aspects to Purim. The halachah of drinking on Purim applies only to men, and the parameters of this halachah is explained by the Poskim. But there are many other aspects of Purim as well which apply to both men and women. Here are some of those points to think about, and each person should try to do them on his or her own level, according to his or her personal capabilities – and not based on any reasons influenced by factors that are either social, or emotional, or family-based, because there are many times where people act based solely on “what’s normal”, and this uproots any serenity and joy that they could have on Purim.

1) Consider the aspect of reading the Megillah on Purim. Both men and women are obligated to hear the Megillah on Purim. And on a more inner level, both men and women can reflect on the events in the Megillah and see how there was Divine Providence laced throughout this story, because the word “Megillas Esther” means to “reveal” the “hidden”, to turn the concealment (hester) into giluy (revelation of Hashem’s Divine Providence). A person can go through all of the details in the Purim story, from beginning until end, and he can see how it was all an unfolding process of Hashem’s Divine Providence – as opposed to a bunch of random details that have no connection to each other.

On an even deeper level, each person, whether a man or woman, on his or her own level, can see Hashem’s inner mode of conduct hidden in the Creation, as explained in sefer Daas Tevunos, and how every event in the world can be seen through the lens of Hashem’s carefully planned Divine Providence, His goodness, and the revelation of His Oneness.

2) Consider the mitzvah of sending Mishloach Manos on Purim. The purpose of this mitzvah is to increase love and friendship. On the obligatory level, everyone is obligated to send two portions of food to someone. On an inner level, one should also think about whom he will make happy by giving Mishloach Manos to. Then one should think, “What can I put into this Mishloach Manos package which will make the other person happy? What would that person really enjoy?” One should put thought into how much Mishloach Manos to send, what the quality of it should be like, how nice it should look & what kind of nice messages he can send with it. Everyone should do this only according to her personal capabilities, and not over-do it.
Even more so, when giving Mishloach Manos, it should not just be an act of giving motivated by logic alone, but it should be given from the depth of one’s heart, with love and joy, to make the other person happy.

Included in this aspect (gladdening other people on Purim) is to make the children happy, with costumes and the like. But again, one should do this only within her actual capabilities, and only if she can do it with joy.

3) Consider also the mitzvah to give Matanos L’Evyonim (gifts to the poor) on Purim. One should look for a person who needs it the most, and who would be the happiest to receive it – and one should strive to give Matanos L’Evyonim specifically to this kind of person. A woman usually needs to ask her husband about whom she may give Matanos L’Evyonim to, mainly so that her husband should agree with her decision.

4) Regarding the seudah of Purim, [if you are hosting a seudah], try to serve dishes that each person there will enjoy, catered to his or her particular tastes. The main point of the seudah on Purim, of course, is to think about and discuss Purim-related matters and what Purim is all about, and to stay away from any words that can be insulting to others, which only serve to bring out the most unrefined and impure elements in one’s nature.

5) The purpose of the day of Purim is to reach a deep place in ourselves that is above one’s daas (logical reasoning and understanding). For men, whose main mitzvah is to learn Torah, their main work on this world is to develop the power of their logic throughout the year, by studying Torah. That is why men need the intoxicating effects of wine (or the dulling effect of sleep) in order to “nullify” their logical understanding and reach a place that goes beyond logical understanding. Women, who are exempt from Torah study, are therefore closer to the concept of nullifying their understanding and to more easily reach a place that goes beyond logical understanding. This is the point known as temimus
(non-intellectual simplicity or earnestness).

Thus the main avodah of the day of Purim is: “Be wholesome with Hashem your G-d”, to walk with Him in temimus (simplicity), without any intellectual thinking. It is about sensing His unlimited love for us, just as the people in the time of Achashveirosh re-accepted the Torah out of their great love of Hashem that they saw through the miracles of Purim. It is about feeling how He always gives of His kindnesses to us, out of His great love for us, by saving us from trouble, and by bestowing good upon us. From this understanding, we can come to feel the sweetness and pleasantness of being close to Him. This is the root of true simchah on Purim, because by feeling close to Hashem a person feels physically lighter, in the body in general and specifically in the feet. That is why one can easily sing and dance on Purim, just as by the song of Miriam, when the joy of the women made them feel lighter, causing them to quickly sing and dance.

And that is why the miracles on Purim happened precisely through women [Esther]. It is because women are closer to this temimus (simplicity and earnestness). Men need to drink on Purim as a means to reach this place of temimus, whereas women are closer to reaching it, without the means of drinking. It only requires a little bit of re-fl ecting and calm silence, to enter into the deepest place within oneself – and each person on his or her own level can do it. (from the Bilvavi Q & A archive.)

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When Adar Enters, Focus on Connection and Completion

The Gemora (Ta’anis 29a) tells us that “Just as from when the month of Av enters, we minimize our happiness, so too from when the month of Adar enters, we increase our happiness.”

Although we are taught to increase our happiness, there are no specific mitzvos commanded to accomplish this increase. The Maharal in his commentary on Avos (6:1) says that happiness flows from completeness, just as grief is the result of loss and deficiency. When we are connected within ourselves, to Hashem, and to other people, we are more complete and the happiness flows. Happiness is not the goal of Judaism, but when we accomplish our purpose through the pursuit of three types of connection, happiness is the result.

Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the popular Bilvavi and Da Es seforim, points out that our purpose in this world is rooted in these three types of connection: connection between our body and soul, connection between ourselves and Hashem, and connection between ourselves and other people.
The Mishna in Avos (1:2) says the world stands on three things, Torah, Service of Hashem, and Acts of Kindness. The Nesivos Shalom says that the world refered to in the Mishna is our personal world which we build each and every day. Torah provides us with the concepts and mitzvos that enable us to use the material world in a spiritual way – which connects our physical bodies to our spiritual soul. Service of Hashem is accomplished through prayer which connects us to Hashem on a daily basis. Acts of Kindness, both large and small, connect us to our family, friends and community.

When we actualize these connections, through learning Torah, prayer, and chesed, we should focus on feeling the increase in our sense of completion. If we do this our happiness will increase.

Purim – It’s Not a Party for the Non-Observant

When I first came to yeshiva in Israel it happened to be this time of year leading up to the holiday of Purim. There was an interest and an excitement amongst the students and Rabbis. Since I didn’t really know what it was all about, I was kind of keeping it at a distance from myself in my mind and focusing on my studies. I had come to yeshiva seeking the answers to life’s most important questions and I had found a happy home there delving into the meaning of life, morality, and spirituality.

I noticed leading up to Purim that more and more people were saying to me how much I was going to enjoy the holiday and how much fun it would be. The implication was that since I was secular, and secular people like parties, I would like Purim because it’s a party. However, as Purim got closer, and the holiday was not really being explained to me, I forced an older student to go through the Megillah with me so I’d know a little bit more what the holiday is about.

Once Purim descended upon us I understood it to some extent, but I was highly unimpressed with the party aspect. You see as far as secular parties go it wasn’t much. Sure some costumes were interesting and it was different seeing the Rabbis more relaxed, but I was there in yeshiva for spirituality, not to party. In fact, since it was hyped so much by people it was even more of a let down.

Maybe all the guys had loved Purim their first time and thought I would too. Or maybe they forgot what it was like the first time. There are many good reasons for their enthusiasm and assumption I would enjoy the Purim parties. But my experience was flat and unexciting. My feeling was they were cheapening my search for spirituality by assuming I would love to drink cheap wine and dance in a circle.

Now that I’m frum and don’t watch T.V. or go to secular parties, the Purim parties are a lot of fun. And I’ve learned to appreciate the spirituality that’s hidden in the party.

But with my students, I try not to get there hopes up about the partying because for most of them, they could go to a party that’s a lot more fun and intoxicating. And I try to give them the benefit of the doubt that the reason they are studying with me is to get more spirituality in their lives. So I try to educate them about the deeper meaning behind the masks.

And then I pour them a glass of cheap wine.

Originally published March 6, 2006

Purim: Happiness In Spite Of Pain

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh.

Download a number of Drashos on Purim

What is happiness? Basically, it is to fulfill a lacking. The more lacking we feel, the greater happiness we feel when we fulfill what we’re missing.

It’s easy to be happy on Purim – after all, we experienced a redemption! We were saved from death. But how can we be happy today when we are in exile, and we are full of suffering?

In Tehillim we say, “Serve Hashem with joy”. This means that we can always be happy – but how? When we experience failure and we are down, how can we be happy?

It’s nice to say, “Gam Zu L’Tovah” — “This, too is for the best”. But that doesn’t yet prove we are happy; that would definitely show Emunah in Hashem, but how can we be actually happy in spite of all the suffering we have?

The way we can always be happy, even amidst pain, is by nullifying our will completely to Hashem.

What does it means to nullify our selves?

It doesn’t mean simply to give up what we want for Hashem, to sacrifice for Him, (which is indeed commendable). It means that my entire existence is completely for Hashem! Let us elaborate further.

Why is it that most people don’t feel that Hashem is always with them? How come people don’t feel Hashem in their life?

Many people will answer – “I must have many sins, therefore I don’t feel Hashem next to me.” That is true, but there is a more inner reason.

The true, inner reason is because most people simply never realize that Hashem even exists! How then can a person recognize Hashem in his life?

If a person nullifies his ego, he will automatically come to realize Hashem’s existence. The “Me, me me” in a person is what prevents a person from experiencing the simple awareness of Hashem’s existence.

When a person suffers — let’s say a person becomes ill – it is a time to “accept suffering”; the Mishna in Avos says that we must accept suffering. But what does it mean to accept suffering? Does it mean that a person should think, “Let my suffering be an atonement for all my sins?” That is not the purpose of suffering (although it is definitely true that suffering does atone one’s sins). The purpose of accepting suffering is to give up one’s very self to Hashem.

When one suffers, he has the opportunity to give up his very self, bringing himself ever closer to Hashem. This is how a person can rejoice even while he is suffering – by giving up his very self to Hashem.

What is Purim to us?

For many people, Purim is a day of strict halachic observance and nothing more. Purim can be a day of observing the mitzvos with all their dikduk and chumros – hearing the Megillah this way and that way, giving this and that for Mishloach Manos and Matanos L’evyonim – it can remain at that, a day of superficial mitzvah observance!

We are not trying to make fun of those who are very frum to carry out every halacha of Purim! We are not saying these are not good things. It is very commendable to observe and carry our all the halachos of Purim as best as possible. But there is a lot more to Purim than just the mitzvos of Purim!

The question we must ask ourselves every year is: “Did Purim change me?” Did you simply rejoice over the fact that the Jews were saved on Purim, celebrating the same celebration every year… or did you succeed in realizing that you have to give your self up for Hashem?

If you are simply happy on Purim because there was one time in history that the Jews were saved on this day, your happiness on Purim is only on Purim – that’s it! You will remain the same sad person after Purim ends, not having changed a bit.

The halacha is that “A person is obligated to get drunk on Purim until has lost his daas”. Why?

By getting drunk on Purim, we can come to a level of recognizing Hashem in our lives, by realizing that we must give our selves up for him. The Purim of today that we see is very far from the truth, from the way it is supposed to be. In fact, there is no day further from the truth than modern-day Purim; we are failing to use it properly. Let’s turn it around – V’nahafoch Hu!

Dealing With Disappointment

By Yonoson Rosenblum

Torah isn’t just a lifestyle choice, no matter how attractive or comfortable. Above all, it is the Truth

Rabbi Berel Wein has famously remarked, “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.” As great as my admiration and affection for Rabbi Wein is, I have never been a fan of this particular comment.

Most important, it is futile: We all know — and need to know — that Judaism is being judged all the time by the Jews, and particularly by the most identifiable among us. That is particularly true for the gentiles judging Judaism, but also for nonobservant Jews as well.

Nevertheless, I recently came to appreciate a new profundity in Rabbi Wein’s line, in a context other than the one I always understood it. I have always assumed that Rabbi Wein was addressing his words to those on the outside of Torah Judaism looking in.

But lately it dawned upon me that he might well have been speaking to those on the inside dismayed by the behavior of their fellow Orthodox Jews. The occasion for my reevaluation was a call I received this week from a baal teshuvah of decades’ standing. He told me that he finds himself terribly disillusioned by those whom he most respected, and that he is hearing the same from many friends who, like him, are baalei teshuvah of longstanding, and even from those who were born into religious families.

My caller — someone whom I have never met — and his friends were particularly upset by the communal response to COVID-19. He had a particular grievance, as he is a doctor who has treated many of the Torah scholars in his community and their families. And he has grown increasingly exasperated at being told, “The doctors don’t know what they are talking about [with respect to urging people to wear masks, especially inside, or maintaining social distancing].” He had always been taught that the halachah pesukah is to act in accord with the best consensus among doctors at that particular moment in history.

THAT PHONE CALL left me badly shaken, and since that conversation, I have been thinking about what I could tell my caller.

Let me begin with a couple of quasi-sociological observations. The first I heard well over thirty years ago from Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb: No one becomes an Orthodox Jew exclusively for intellectual reasons. (And that is even more the case for those born into the Orthodox world.) For the baal teshuvah, the beauty of the Shabbos table, the warm families (albeit often idealized), the desire to connect oneself to the great chain of the Jewish People, the awe one feels for figures totally unlike anyone whom one has met before — in my case, Rabbi Nachman Bulman and, ybdlcht”a, Rabbi Aharon Feldman — all play a role.

Second observation: Community plays an outsized role for an observant Jew, as compared to his secular neighbors. Every Jew is defined by his membership in Klal Yisrael (and in many cases various sub-communities thereof as well). Many of our basic obligations depend on a larger community for their optimal performance. And the feeling of being part of a community of people who care about one another is one of the great joys of a Torah life. The decision of a number of chassidic rebbes to go ahead with Tu B’Shevat gatherings of thousands was, I’m told, based on the fear that without such communal events, many would feel that their Yiddishkeit had been drained of all meaning.

Yet we have to remember that we are not only members of a community. We are also individuals, with our own unique relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. As I have written many times in the name of Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l, “On Rosh Hashanah, we confront Hashem as a solitary individual, stripped of social context.”

At some point, we have to make sure that our constant question is: What does Hashem want from me at this moment? And not: What will the neighbors say? When we do that, we will find other kindred souls on the path. Disappointment with a particular rav or even with a large part of a community need not leave one alone or bereft. As I pointed out to my caller, many of the most prominent local rabbanim and poskim in his community fully support his position, and the shul with the largest number of daily mispallelim is also the strictest with regard to masks and social distancing.

In order to overcome the inevitable disappointment that arises when our idealized vision of having moved into a perfect community does not pan out, we have to remember that Torah is not just a lifestyle choice, no matter how attractive or comfortable it happens to be. Above all, it is the Truth. Lifestyles can be cast aside when they no longer satisfy or they become a source of embarrassment. But the Truth obligates us, even when we are alienated to one degree another from the community. Once one perceives the Torah as the ultimate Truth, he can no longer imagine himself living a life other than as a Torah Jew.

In one sense, baalei teshuvah have it easier than FFBs. The initial idealistic excitement of upending their lives brings a tremendous momentum to their entry into the Torah world. Yet in the end that momentum will not be sufficient to sustain one over a lifetime, any more than maintaining the default position of having been born into a religious family will sustain a rich religious life.

We were born to labor, and labor we must. Always. When one feels distraught over certain perceived communal shortcomings, it is time to turn inward and focus more intensely on our individual tasks as Torah Jews.

The Maharal in his introduction to Derech Hachayim on Pirkei Avos describes man as coming into the world with a threefold task: to complete himself with respect to his fellow man; to complete himself with respect to Hashem; and to complete himself in relation to himself. The three cardinal sins, which require one to give up one’s life rather than commit them, each derive from the fact that they render completion in one of those areas impossible: murder, with respect to connecting to one’s fellow man; idolatry, with respect to one’s relationship to Hashem; and animalistic licentiousness with respect to completion of oneself. A remarkable two-volume work by the late Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Greenwald, With Truth and with Love, explores these different forms of connection in detail and in the context of an overarching Torah vision.

But the necessary precondition for marshaling all our kochos for self-completion is to be constantly reinforcing our conviction in the truth of Torah. There are many ways and combinations of ways toward developing knowledge of the Truth of Hashem and His Torah. But it is critical that each of us be involved in them. For some it will be the contemplation of the quality of human beings formed by the deepest immersion in Torah. One need go no further than the three extraordinary Jews portrayed in the last issue of Mishpacha. For others, it might be reflection on history’s long-lasting miracle, the survival of the Jewish People, and, in particular, those Jews grounded in Torah.

Some will find compelling science-based proofs for the Creator. In his explication of the Divine Name Shakkai (the expression of Hashem as He Who imposes limits), in Exodus: A Parasha Companion, for instance, Rabbi David Fohrman cites leading cosmologists to show that had there been any infinitesimal variation in the relative strengths of the four forces that comprise the universe — gravity, electromagnetic, the nuclear strong force, and the nuclear weak force — it could not have come into existence.

I cannot imagine a week without hours devoted to Chumash and delving into the commentaries, both ancient and modern, that derive infinite layers of meaning from the text and guidance for our everyday lives. Or a day without participation in the same debates that have engrossed the greatest minds for thousands of years.

That immersion will not keep me from feeling frustration over those actions by chareidi Jews that push other Jews away from ever experiencing the excitement and feeling of connectedness that I do. But it ensures that I would never wish to be leading a life different from the one I am at present.

Originally Published in Mishpacha Magazine – February 10, 2021

Discovering Your Happiness

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh.

Download a number of Drashos on Purim

Discovering Your Happiness

Introduction
עמהם חלקנו ושים – We ask Hashem that our portion be with those who truly trust in Hashem. Then we ask בטחנו בך כי נבוש לא ולעולם – that we not be eternally shamed. Here in Shemoneh Esrei we state that if we achieve bitachon (trust in Hashem) that we will not be shamed; clearly, though, we are not yet on the level of bitachon, for we just mentioned that only the tzaddikim attain true bitachon. Why are we requesting this, if we are clearly not yet on the level of having true bitachon in Hashem?

The answer lies in the following.

Focusing On What You Have Already

Everything is inside man. All good middos – as well as all bad middos – are inside us, being that we contain in ourselves a mixture of good and evil.
When a person wants to acquire bitachon, or any other good quality, the superficial attitude is, to try to ‘acquire’ the good trait. A person wants bitachon, so he feels “I need to acquire bitachon.” A person wants simcha (happiness), so his attitude is “I need to acquire simcha.”

But there is a more inner perspective to have. In whatever we want to acquire, we need to first see how much of it we have already acquired and how much we still have to acquire, and upon that, we can then seek to fill whatever we are missing. For example, if a person wants to have bitachon, he shouldn’t think “I don’t have bitachon, so I must get bitachon.” Rather, he needs to see how much bitachon he already has revealed in his life, and then he should seek to acquire the remaining amount of bitachon that you still haven’t acquired yet.

Why? It is because since all of the good middos are really found inside us – for man is all-inclusive – therefore, you already have some of it already revealed in you.

You need to have that perspective. Even if you only have a small revelation of the good quality you’re trying to acquire, it is still something.

Chazal say that one should first give gratitude over the past before he cries to Hashem about what he needs. So first see what you already have, then ask Hashem for things. For example, if you need parnassah, but you are healthy, first thank Hashem for your health, and then ask for parnassah.

There is also a deeper understanding of this. When we thank Hashem, it can only happen as a result of recognizing what we already have. In order to thank Hashem, we first need to see what we have and admit to it. If we just say it with our mouth but we don’t admit to it in our heart, then it’s
just a lip service.

Having A ‘Good Eye’

This concept is also called “ayin tovah” – having a “good eye.” It is also called “someach b’chelko”, being happy with one’s lot. A person has to first focus on the positive and only after that ask Hashem for what he needs. If a person is always focusing on what he’s missing – “I’m missing this middah and that middah, etc.” – then all he is concerned about is how to fill his void. He never stops to consider what he does have.

The correct mentality is to first focus on what you already have. This gets you used to being positive – on what you do have – not on what you don’t have.

Whether we need something physical or something spiritual, first we need to realize what we do have. We should not focus on what we don’t have and what we need. And actually, the more we grow in spirituality, the more we see how much we are missing, and we will grow more and more negative towards ourselves.

Therefore, the real mindset to have is to first reflect on what you do have until now, and then, by thanking Hashem over these things, your gratitude will then connect you to all those things and help you realize them.

If a person can’t thank Hashem for what he does have, he doesn’t really recognize what he have, and he will be negative towards himself, because all he thinks about is how much he doesn’t have. He places his soul in a place that always feels lacking, and this is damaging.

The Vilna Gaon said that we need to be someach b’chelko (happy with our lot) even when it comes to our ruchniyus. So the basis is to realize what we already have gained in our ruchniyus. This is a major fundamental we must know in our Avodas Hashem! It is especially relevant to those who are drawn towards sadness and negativity. When we apply this concept of being focused on the positive to our Avodas Hashem, we will leave our pull towards negativity and instead feel more drawn after simcha (happiness).

Spiritual Growth: Expanding The Good Within

There is also a deeper point to be aware of with regards to this.

In any matter of Avodas Hashem, we do not acquire a matter from “outside” ourselves. Rather, everything is really drawn from within ourselves. Everything we need to acquire is already inside us. All we have to do is expand what we already have.
If someone is only focused on what he doesn’t have in his ruchniyus – he is always thinking about the middos and spiritual qualities he needs to acquire – he has never thought about all the good that is really inside him up until this point.

All you need to do is to expand the good points that are already revealed to a certain extent inside you. To illustrate, Rav Shimon Shkop said that in order to love others like yourself, you can’t do it by simply trying to love another person. Rather, you expand your own love which you have for
yourself, and you let it extend to others.

In whatever good point we are trying to acquire, some of it is already revealed in you! You just need to keep expanding it. But it’s already revealed in you somewhat, and you should not think that you need to “get” some quality or some good middah from outside of yourself. It is already within you, and you just need to keep opening it up more and more from within yourself.

This is a perspective to have towards Torah learning, towards holiness, towards Avodas Hashem you don’t acquire growth from “outside” of yourself. Rather, you get it by expanding upon the good points that are already in you – and all of the good points really are found in you.

Genuine Avodas Hashem

These words are describing a subtle concept. Usually, when a person wants to acquire a certain quality, he will learn the words of Chazal about them. But the inner method is to realize that all’s inside you, and you just need to expand the good that’s already in you; there is nothing “new” you need to acquire from the outside!

This will change your entire perspective towards avodas Hashem, the more you clarify this point and the more you actualize it.

There are people who enter into avodas Hashem but they become more and more disconnected from actual self-recognition, even as they are involved with becoming more serious and devoted to better serving Hashem; they become more superficial! There are also people who immerse themselves in Torah study and they lose their self in the process. They become disconnected from their own self-recognition even as they are involved with spiritual pursuit. But this is not the proper way of Torah.

When it comes to avodas Hashem, a person might think that he’s trying to acquire matters that are beyond himself, and as he is involved in trying to grow, he loses his own self in the process. But if a person uses the inner approach here, he truly experiences the inner world contained in avodas Hashem.

The Innermost Point

An even deeper point is to know the following.

In our soul, there are parts that are revealed to us and parts that are concealed to us. Our good middos are partially revealed and partially concealed. If we want acquire good middos, we need to expand what has already been revealed, and that is how we will bring out the rest that is concealed. This is what we explained so far.

But the concealed good in our soul is not just our good middos that we haven’t revealed. In the very depths of our soul, there is nothing but the actual purity of our soul. All perfection is contained there! We have a Nefesh, Ruach, and Neshamah which are all found inside us. Therefore, all qualities are already in us. (The Nefesh HaChaim writes part of the neshamah is present in the thoughts of the brain).

So the first point of all this is that a person needs to realize, that all good middos are already in him. Practically speaking, one has to be thankful for whatever good he already has. Then, he has to realize that whatever else he needs to acquire, it is also inside him, and he just needs to expand the good that is already there.

We have discussed these two points until now; now we will explain the third point we need to know, which is to realize the innermost point of the soul. In the very inner depths of the soul, all perfection is contained! There, there is absolute perfection in our Torah and middos. But, it is dormant, and we need to reveal it from its potential state and activate it.

We feel ‘poor’ on the outside, but we really have a million dollars inside our “bank.” If only the “pauper” would be informed that there are millions of dollars stored somewhere in his house. It’s not just money that you can’t access. It can be accessed – you just have to recognize it by getting in
touch with it.

We have good middos and bad middos in ourselves – all of them. From the perspective of our nefesh hebehaimis, we feel lowly towards ourselves because we see how more we need to improve and acquire. Our avodah in this is that we must thank Hashem for the good we have revealed and seek to expand the good that is already in us.

But the higher aspect is to utilize the perspective coming from our very essence of the soul, which is the point of perfection in us.

We thank Hashem every day for returning to us our pure soul, when we say Elokai Neshamah. A person might say this for 70 years but he doesn’t reflect on this concept. Why do we keep thanking Hashem every day for returning to us our soul? It is not just to say thanks to Hashem. It is because it is so fundamental to realize that we are a pure soul in our essence. It’s unbelievable – a person might go his whole life and say Elokai Neshamah every day, yet the life he lives does not reflect this at all. A person might live his whole life and never realize he is really a pure Neshamah, even though he says Elokai Neshamah every day.

All perfection is contained in our soul’s essence. This gives you a whole new perspective towards your self-awareness. Of course, we still have a body and an animalistic level of the soul, and we still have bad middos in us. All the bad middos are indeed in us. But that’s only one way of looking at it. If we focus on the fact that we are a body with base desires and bad middos, we view ourselves with a lowly perspective. The real “Modeh Ani” is to realize that we have a neshamah.

We still have an avodah to work on ourselves and improve ourselves, of course, but we need to do our avodah from the perspective of our neshamah – to realize how wealthy we are! It is called being ‘someiach b’chelko’. It is to recognize oneself with the understanding that one is a perfect neshamah!

Three Ways To Acquire Happiness

We are in the month of Adar, days of simchah (joy). We have three ways of how to reach simchah, as we have so far explained.

(1) The first perspective we explained is to expand upon the good that is already in ourselves. For example, if you want to acquire a good middah of a good quality (i.e. bitachon), realize that you already have some of the level that you want. When you think into this, it can provide you with a degree of simchah.

(2) Another way to derive simchah is to focus on your good points and qualities.

(3) The highest perspective you can have is to realize you are a neshamah (a Divine soul), which contains all inner wealth possible.

When you reveal this joy in yourself, you will feel like a convert born anew, like a new being. With this deep perspective, you will also stop comparing yourself with others and instead just realize that you are a neshamah. When you dwell in it, you live in a world of light. A life of neshamah means to connect yourself with the spiritual world, and on a deeper level, to connect yourself with the
Creator.

These words are not inspirational ideas. It is a perspective to view life with; it is a certain selfawareness. It is not intellectual, nor is it meant to be inspirational. It is about recognizing reality as it is.

In Conclusion

When a person lives with this attitude, he enters into what is written, “The righteous rejoice in Hashem.”

Now we return to the question we started out with. On one hand, one must aspire for bitachon in Hashem and ask Hashem that he be among those who truly trust in Hashem – ask we ask in Shemoneh Esrei, עמהם חלקנו ושים .At the same time, recognize that you are a neshamah – therefore, all good and all perfection is really contained deep down in your essence.

Becoming aware to these three aspects can cause a major overhaul in your life and it can help you enter the spiritual world. There will always be ups and downs, there are always times when we fail, but generally, this is the perspective you can carry with you that will lead you to a truly spiritual life, and you can keep going with it until you reach the complete bond with Hashem.

Understanding Gods Plan as Best We Can

Over the past few weeks (in January 2007), I’ve started, and failed to finish, about 5 different posts for Beyond BT. While all were different, all had the same theme: why aren’t people seeing the same ‘truths’ that I see in the Torah?

I started all of these posts trying to engender a spirit of honest debate and questioning, but stopped before I’d completed them. Why? Firstly, because like everyone, I have my own baggage, and however ‘objective’ I wish I was, I know that my own slanted viewpoint creeps in here and there, and warps the real essence of what I’m trying to write.

Secondly, because many of the subjects I was trying to write about – and which are exercising me at the moment – are ‘biggies’. Let me share some examples: We moved to Israel from the UK, about a year and a half ago. While many people, thank G-d, have had an easy aliya, we have had quite a challenging aliya, with things going ‘wrong’ on many different levels.

Without belaboring the point, within a week of moving here, we lost all of our savings (thanks to an ‘unexpected development’ back in chutz); had a falling out with a close family member ostensibly upset about our move; and a firm offer of a job (again, with a firm in chutz) retracted.

From that point, we went on to have our credit card stolen, our house broken into, business difficulties which in turn lead to financial difficulties, and the dawning realization that socially, we just weren’t fitting in all that well.

Yet despite all this – or maybe, because of all of it – I haven’t stopped thanking Hashem that we made the move. In the UK, we were both workaholics; in Israel, we have had the time and space to really appreciate the blessings that are our children. In the UK, I was too busy making and spending money to really do much in the way of learning or chesed. Here, I can’t give tzedeka as freely as I’d like to. But boy, am I making an effort to have Shabbat guests and to find ‘free’ ways of doing nice things for people.

In Israel, thanks to many of our difficulties, I am now inordinately grateful for everything I do have, like my health, my husband, my family more generally. In chutz, I would get down if even the tiniest thing didn’t go my way. In Israel, I am meeting so many great people, who are really on an upward path in terms of their yiddishkeit. People who are really living their Judaism, and for whom Hashem permeates every minute, every moment, every decision and action. In chutz, I really wasn’t.

As one of the other posters here commented, all the arguments about moving to Israel etc, have been very well rehearsed. But when you live here – and you really struggle to live here – you understand how a Jew who doesn’t live here is missing out on a very fundamental part of their yiddishkeit. That’s controversial, I know. But it’s what I truly believe.

Here’s another ‘controversial’ thing that the last few months here have shown me: Having a lot of material wealth is an enormous obstacle to getting close to Hashem. Yes, the dream house, luxury car, gourmet meal and designer outfit is nice, on one level. But that level is incredibly superficial. I had nice things in London and lots of money. And I realize now just how complacent I’d become in my yiddishkeit as a result.

Here, I have prayed like I have never prayed before. It’s not always been a comfortable experience. But I’ve had to ask myself ‘what are we here for?’ and I’ve had to realize that the answer is ‘to work on ourselves and get closer to our creator’. And you don’t do that by shopping.

The last thing I’ve realized, again controversially, is that ‘feminism’ and Judaism really don’t go together. To the point that now, I try to steer clear of any self-styled ‘orthodox feminists’. Why? Because anyone who is putting gender politics into Torah really doesn’t grasp the basic principles underlying creation: G-d made the world. G-d is perfect. G-d knew exactly what he was doing, and if you have a problem with it, you are essentially saying that you know better than G-d.

I know others will differ, but for me, that is a fundamentally problematic position to take; it’s a circle that simply can’t be squared.

Every issue / problem / challenge has G-d at its root. From the small niggles, to the larger frustrations and the enormous tragedies, G-d is running the world, and knows better than we do what is for our best, and ultimately, what is for our ultimate ‘good’.

It sounds strange, even to me, to write these words and be that much closer to genuinely believing them. But coming to Israel, with all the ups and downs it has entailed, has helped me to realize that if I am to have a meaningful relationship with G-d, and also to my Judaism, I have to accept that I can only ever see a very small part of Gods plan – and that his ability to run the world is far beyond what I can comprehend.

Originally Posted in January, 2007

The Halachos of Snow

As we shovel and plow and navigate our way to work, it’s a great time to listen to some Torah to Go. A number of years ago Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, gave a shiur at Congregation Ahavas Yisroel about Inyanei D’Yoma (relevant topic of the day), namely the Halachos of Snow. It was an amazing shiur, which you can download here, highlighting that in addition to the snow on the ground, the abstraction of snow is also a beautiful sight.

The Ramchal in the Book of Logic teaches us that the labor of the intellect is to see things as they really are, but we often make mistakes and come to false conclusions. The two most basic functions of the mind in the quest for knowledge are the activities of comparison and differentiation. Mistakes can occur in either one of these two activities, when we compare things that are not similar or differentiate things which are not really different.

This is where snow as an abstraction is so fascinating as Rabbi Schachter gave us a whirlwind tour of some of the issues involved when we compare and differentiate the realities of snow in various circumstances. The kids love good packing snow and one of the questions we can ask is whether our construction of a snow man on Shabbos would be considered building or not?

Another question is in what ways is snow similar to water. We know that a collection of water in a Mikveh has certain spirtual properties in that it can remove spiritual impurity. What happens if you had a Mikveh filled with snow and you immersed yourself in it. Is it considered a body of water at rest on the ground like a mikveh filled with water or perhaps the nature of snow prevent it from acting as a collected body of water at rest?

As we walked through the streets in the aftermath of the storm the snow is packed solid and piled high. Is that packed snow considered an extension of the ground or not? To build an eruv, the marker has to be at 40 inches above the ground. When packed snow covers the ground do we measure from the top of the snow or do we measure from the ground?

Rabbi Schacter dealt with many more issues regarding the abstractions of snow and I highly recommend listening to the audio. The physical reality of snow presents one set of issues, but the abstraction of snow sheds an entirely different spotlight on this wondrous creation in Hashem’s world.

OMG

Probably the most incredible thing that happened during Krias Yam Suf, was not the miraculous splitting of the sea or the drowning of the Egyptian army, or the salvation of the Jewish people. But rather when all of Klal Yisroel lifted up their voices and sang in unison as one choir.

Every individual was able to make the following declaration: Zeh K-e-li Ve-anvehu: This is my God and I will glorify Him.

They came to recognize not only that there is a God and He does good and miraculous things for us. But rather this is my God and He does good for me.

The big prize of life is not to discover that there is a God and he does good, but rather that this is my God.

OMG

Hishtadlus and Parshas HaMon

We are taught that although Hashem runs the world we have to do our Hishtadlus (our own efforts). What that is in any situation differs for each person and is dependent on a person’s bitachon (trust) and his or her personality type. It’s hard to get the hishtadlus factor exactly right, no too much and not too little. The key for us believing Jews is to remember that even after our hishtadlus, everything is in Hashem’s hands. This is something we have to continually work on to internalize.

The halachic works suggest that we read Parshas Hamon everyday to internalize this message. (Tur 1; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 1:5; Aruch Hashulchan 1:22; Shulchan Aruch HaRav 1:9). The Mishna Berurah says “And the parsha of the Manna is such that he will believe that all his livelihood comes through special Divine direction (hashgacha pratis)”.

From my observations, most people are lucky to get through all the davening, let alone recite extras, like Parshas HaMon. However, it just so happens that Rebbe Mendel of Riminov said that saying Parshas HaMon on Tuesday of Parshas B’Shalach is a Segulah for Parnossa. And guest what – this Tuesday is that Tuesday.

Here’s a link to the Art Scroll Interlinear translation of Parshas Hamon.

The Most Famous Ramban in Chumash – The End of Parshas Bo

The Ramban at the end of Bo is a classic work on Jewish philosophy and probably the most quoted Ramban in Chumash. It’s well worth seeing inside. Art Scroll has published the Ramban on Torah, so if you won’t read it in Hebrew, consider picking up the English translation.

Here is a summary:

Reason for the Plagues

The Ramban says that from the time of Enosh there were three types of heretics: 1) Those that didn’t believe in G-d at all; 2) Those that believed in a G-d, but didn’t believe He knew what was happening in the world; 3) Those that believed in G-d’s knowledge, but didn’t believe that He oversees the world or that there is reward and punishments.

By favoring the Jews and altering nature through the plagues, the falsity of the heretical views became clear to all. The supernatural wonders indicate the world has a G-d who created it, knows all, oversees all and is all powerful. And when that wonder is publicly declared beforehand through a prophet, the truth of prophecy is made clear as well, namely that G-d will speak to a person and reveal His secrets to His servants, the prophets, and with acknowledgement of this principle the entire Torah is sustained. (The Ramban brings down a number of pesukim supporting this.)

Reason for so many Mitzvos regarding the Exodus

Now, because G-d does not perform a sign or wonder in every generation in sight of every evil person and disbeliever, He commanded that we should have constant reminders and signs of what we saw in Egypt and we should transmit it to our children thoughout the generations. G-d was stringent in this matter as we see from the strict penalties regarding eating Chometz on Pesach and neglecting the Pesach offering. Other mitzvos regarding the Exodus are tefillin, mezuzos, remembering the Exodus in the morning and evening, Succos.

There are also many other commandments that serve as a reminder of the Exodus (Shabbos, the festivals, redemption of the firstborn,…). And all these commandments serve as a testimony for us through the generations regarding the wonders performed in Egypt, that they not be forgotten and there will be no argument for a heretic to deny faith in G-d.

The Reason behind Mitzvos in General

When one does a simple mitzvah like mezuzah and thinks about its importance, he has already acknowledged G-d’s creation of the world, G-d’s knowledge and supervision of the world’s affairs, the truth of prophecy and all the foundations of Torah. In addition he has acknowledged G-d’s kindness towards those that perform His will, for He took us from bondage to freedom in great honor in the merit of our forefathers.

That is why Chazal say, be careful in performing a minor commandment as a major one, for all of them are major and beloved since through them a person is constantly acknowledging his G-d. For the objective of all the commandments is that we should believe in G-d and acknowledge to Him that He created us.

Purpose of Creation

In fact this is the purpose of creation itself, for we have no other explanation of creation. And G-d has no desire, except that man should know and acknowledge the G-d that created him. And the purpose of raising our voices in prayer and the purpose of Shuls and the merit of communal prayer is that people should have a place where they can gather and acknowledge that G-d created them and caused them to be and they can publicize this and declare before Him, “We are your creations”.

This is what the sages meant when they explained “And they shall call out mightily to G-d” as from here you learn that prayer requires a loud voice for boldness can overcome evil.

Everything is a Sign of Hashem

Through recalling the great revealed signs of Hashem of the Exodus, a person acknowledges the hidden signs of everyday life which are the foundation of the entire Torah. For a person has no share in the Torah of Moshe unless he believes that all our affairs and experiences are signs from Hashem, that there is no independent force of nature regarding either the community or the individual.

Reward and Punishment

Rather if one observes the commandments his reward will bring him success and if he transgresses them his punishment will destroy him. Hidden signs of Hashem can be more clearly recognized as regards the affairs of a community as in the predictions in the Torah in the matter of the blessings and the curses as it says – And the nations will say, “For what reason did Hashem do so to this land…?” And they will say, “Because they forsook the covenant of Hashem, the G-d of their forefathers”. This matter will become known to the nations, that this is from G-d as their (the Jews) punishment. And it is stated regarding the fulfillment of the commandments, “Then all the people of the earth will see that the Name of Hashem is proclaimed over you, and they will revere you.”

First published in January, 2008. Last 2 paragraphs updated January 2012

Bringing Holiness Into How You Eat

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download some amazing Drashos on Eating and Tu B’Shevat

For everything that we eat or drink, we have to recite a berachah (benediction\blessing) over the food, before we eat\drink and after we eat\drink. There is a verse, “A good eye is blessed.” When we make a blessing over food, we need to “eat” the good in it, and then it is “blessed.” Everything in creation is a mix of good and evil, and our avodah is to sift out the good from the evil. All of our food too is a mix of good and evil. Either we can see the “good” in it and eat it with a “good eye”, or we are seeing it from the “evil eye” and we are eating the food out of an evil desire for the food. Ever since Chavah saw the fruit of the Eitz HaDaas and she desired us, there is a part in us which desires food as soon as we see food, and this desire is coming from evil. It is the desire to simply eat the food and satisfy the desire.

In everything we encounter, we must see the good and evil in each thing [as we began to mention in the previous chapter]. We must first see the “good” in everything, Hashem has placed “good” into everything in Creation. But if a person just eats without doing any thinking at all before he eats, he eats without any yishuv hadaas (settled mind), and by default, he will eat simply to satisfy the desire for the food. And if a person goes further with this and he indulges in the food, this is an even more evil part of the desire.

The ideal way to eat is to eat with yishuv hadaas – to eat it calmly. For example, when you look at food, think about the following. First of all, there is “good” in this food here. That is why you are making the blessing over it. The food is a creation of Hashem. “Borei pri ha’etz”, “Borei pri ha’adamah” – we need to recognize how Hashem is the Creator, in each food we eat. This is the “good” we can find in each food. The “good” in each food is how we connect to the good in each food, and this is how we have an ayin tovah, “good eye”. Having a “good eye” in this way connects us to the food in the right way: to feel thankful to Hashem for the food right before we eat it.

When a person pauses for just half a minute before he eats the food and he thinks that Hashem created it, he lives a whole different kind of life! Right before you are about to eat, pause a second and remember that Hashem bestows good upon us, and that we are thanking Him for it. Hashem is giving you something good – remember that, and thank Him for it. In order to connect to the good in a food, you need a “good heart”. Your soul is then truly satisfied inside from this “good” in the food that you have connected yourself, which is achieved by attributing the food to Hashem’s goodness.

Hashem keeps giving us all kinds of things every day. A large part of this is food. We all know in our brains that Hashem gave these foods to us, but we don’t always remember. We have to remind ourselves before we eat that Hashem gives it to us. We need to sense it right before we eat, and it is not enough just to know about this intellectually. Even if we sense that Hashem gives us so much, we must be able to sense it right before we eat.

For example, if a person takes an apple to eat, remind yourself of how good it is that Hashem is giving it to you. Think about how Hashem’s good is contained in this fruit. This is a deeper kind of awareness than just knowing that Hashem gives you the fruit. Think that it is good, for Hashem has placed His good in everything in Creation, and He is now giving it to you.

The Chovos HaLevovos writes in Shaar HaBechinah that every day, a person has to find something new to thank Hashem for. This doesn’t just mean that each day we receive something else from Hashem. Rather, it is that each day we need to see how each thing is good, and this is a new thing to thank Hashem for each day. Don’t just think that this food is good because it gives you strength to serve Hashem better; that is true, but it is not yet the deeper awareness. The deeper awareness is to realize that the food in your hands is good, because Hashem gives you good each day.

Inspiration in Everyday Life

When I was a Yeshivah student, one of the rabbis brought us to a meeting with Rav Shlomo Wolbe. A question was raised in that meeting by a married student, which I didn’t really grasp. “How can someone deal with the spiritual letdown of being involved in mundane affairs? After a day learning in Kollel, I come home and have to deal with diapers, shopping, bills, dirty dishes, etc. How does one remain spiritual in face of this? What can I tell my wife, who has to deal with this all day?”

At the time, being unmarried, I couldn’t relate much to the question, except in a theoretical way. Years later, I was returning from the Beis Midrash on Yom Kippur, during the break between Mussaf and Minchah. Wearing my white kittel, feeling spiritually elevated, the nigunim of the Yom Kippur service reverberating in my mind, I entered my apartment and soon found myself in an encounter with a six month year old baby and a heavily soiled diaper. That’s when the question finally sunk in and I recalled Rav Wolbe’s answer:

“Once, I went with one of the students of Beer Yaakov to buy a piece of jewelry for his kallah. We took the bus to Tel Aviv, and while we were walking down a thoroughfare, he asked me: ‘Rebbe, what are we doing here? Why should we leave the spiritual environs of the Beis Midrash to walk in this commercial district, a completely materialistic environment, for the sake of a piece of jewelry?’

“I answered: ‘Here, we are walking in the world of chesed. The Beis Midrash is the world of Torah and Tefillah. This is the world of chesed.’”

The world of chesed (loving-kindness). The Mishnah says: “The world stands on three pillars: Torah, Divine Service, and acts of kindness.”

For many years, I used to condition myself for 30 seconds before I entered the home: Now, you are entering the world of chesed. Put aside the intricacies of the Gemara, leave the yearning to be close to Hashem in prayer, and focus on chesed!

Different parts of our day have a different focus, and different stages of our lives have a different focus. Focusing on the great opportunities that await us in the world of chesed brings a spiritual uplift to the mundane affairs of everyday life.

Originally posted in February, 2008

Sharing Details About Our Past

After a discussion with my FFB in-laws about “Inspired” and some griping here, David suggested I write about that perennial BT question: Should we or shouldn’t we share details about our old lives?

For those who missed that post, my in-law objected to “Inspired” because in her words, “Al pi halacha, you are not supposed to mention your past aveiros.”

I checked that “halacha” out with my Rov and learned that although there is a prohibition against asking BTs about the past, BTs are permitted to share as much or as little they like. Just like anything else which involves information about a person which could possibly damage them, what you share depends on your purpose. A film like “Inspired” seems to be the highest purpose I can think of for mentioning the past; the further removed the people were from Yiddishkeit, the more remarkable their teshuva seemed.
Read more Sharing Details About Our Past

Should I Argue Against Evolution or for a G-d Directed Evolution

I have a work associate who seems interested in Torah, but he likes to challenge me about contradictions between Torah and science and other things. He recently asked me about the Torahs views on Evolution.

On the one hand, I could say that that I don’t believe in evolution and there are many holes in evolution theory and that scientists are biased against a belief in G-d. On the other hand, many secular Jews accept the scientific consensus that evolution did take place, and I could make the case that a G-d directed evolution would not necessarily contradict the Torah.

My Rav holds that you don’t have to take a 6,000 year creation literally.

What approach makes more sense when dealing with non observant Jews?

– Jack

Originally posted July 2008

The Biggest Problem in Judaism

What’s the biggest problem in Judaism. A lot of things come to mind, the Covid Crisis, the Yeshiva System, the Shidduch System, the Chinuch System, the Left, the Right, the Middle, the Open, the Closed, the Leadership, the lack of Leadership, etc.

However, I think the biggest problem in Judaism is clearly stated in the pasuk in Devarim:
And now, Israel, what does Hashem ask of you, that you
1) fear Him, 2) walk in His ways, 3) love Him, 4) serve Him with all your heart and all your soul and 5) observe all the mitzvos.

That’s what’s expected of us!

On top of that we have an animal soul that’s impulsive, loves physical pleasure, and detests exertion. We have a yetzer hara that makes us ego-centric leading to selfishness, anger, envy and honor seeking. And we live in a world loaded with intellectual, emotional and physical distractions like politics, business, sports, shopping, gadgets, social media, and entertainment.

And even when we are able to overcome the physical, emotional and intellectual deterrents and create some connection to Hashem through fear, middos development, love, wholehearted service, and meticulous mitzvos observance – the major payoff for most people, will not even be received in this world, but in the World to Come.

This challenge is a tall order and it’s not really emphasized to children or adults, because it would discourage them. So Yeshivos focus on the information and thought development of Torah study, and Kiruv and non-Yeshivish environments offer Torah as a lifestyle choice. So it should be no surprise that many of us want to move to a town where we can sit back a little and enjoy the Torah lifestyle. And some of us choose a mostly physical lifestyle, with a side order of spirituality.

That is the Biggest Problem in Judaism – a lot is expected of us and it’s really hard given our nature and environment. However, this is a problem that Hashem created. And if He created this problem, we know that He created a solution. The solution is following a Torah based spiritual growth path. With such a path, a person can truly connect to Hashem and receive the greatest pleasure possible in this world and the next.

Yearning on the Tenth of Teves

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

The Absence of Seeing Hashem In Creation

It is not coincidental that the fast of Asarah B’Teves, the tenth day of the month of Teves, is also during the tenth month of the year.

The significance of the number 10 is found in many places. There is a mitzvah for a person to give maaser, to tithe his crops and animals, to the Levi and Kohen. The holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, is on the tenth of Tishrei. Avraham Avinu was tested with ten trials, and the Jewish people endured ten trials in Egypt. What is the root of all this?

The Mishnah in Avos says that the world was created with ten expressions of Hashem. That was how the world was created, but what is the purpose of it all? To recognize the One who made it all. How do we recognize Him? Through mitzvos, tefillah, and perfecting our middos. Those are all the tools, but what is the goal? To recognize Him completely, to have d’veykus in Him, as the Mesillas Yesharim writes in the beginning. So the world was created through ten expressions, and the purpose of all of Creation is for the creations to become close and attached to Him.

The purpose of the world is manifest in the dimensions of time, space, and soul. In time, the purpose of the world is revealed on Yom Kippur, when all sins are forgiven, when everyone becomes purified, and the purpose of this purification is that all of the creations can be close to Hashem. At what time does a person feel closest to Hashem? Some people can feel the closeness during a time of turbulent emotions, such as in a time of joyous celebration, or during a troublesome time. But the time when almost all people feel closer to Hashem is, on Yom Kippur.

Where is the place in the world where the purpose of Creation was revealed? It was by the Beis HaMikdash. That was where a person could clearly sense Hashem. Our Sages said that when a person entered the Beis HaMikdash, he could feel clearly that he was standing in Hashem’s Presence. In our own times, people can also feel this closeness, of feeling Hashem’s Presence, on varying levels. Some feel it more and some feel it less. But in those times, in the Beis HaMikdash, everyone felt it clearly. The Vilna Gaon says that we have no comprehension of the level of even the simplest Jew then.

Furthermore, there were ten miracles that took place every day in the Beis HaMikdash. There was a unique revelation of Torah that came forth from there, “For from Zion comes forth the Torah, and the word of Hashem, from Jerusalem”, and this was a continuation of the revelations that took place on Har Sinai when the Torah was given. Har HaMoriah, the mountain where the Beis HaMikdash rested on, was a continuation of the light of Torah which Hashem revealed on Har Sinai. It was the place that revealed Hashem’s Presence so clearly on this world. Everyone who entered the Beis HaMikdash was able to sense clearly what was important and what wasn’t, what the main part of life is, why we exist, what we are living for, what our purpose is.

This revelation was not only limited to the Beis HaMikdash. An illumination of it spread to the rest of Yerushalayim, and also to the rest of Eretz Yisrael. Offshoots of it could also be felt at the other ends of the world. The closer a person got to the Beis HaMikdash, the closer he felt to Hashem. This was known as the event of aliyah l’regel, ascending by foot [on the festivals] to the Beis HaMikdash. Chazal say Yerushalayim was the “highest of the lands”, which means it was the highest spiritual peak of the world. But it also meant that a person who went there would ascend on a soul level. It was the place in the world where the purpose of Creation was revealed. The closeness to Hashem there was felt clearly in the soul as a simple feeling of the heart. That was the case in the times when the Beis HaMikdash stood.

The beginning of the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash took place on the 10th of Teves. The Beis Yosef writes that if the 10th of Teves would fall out on Shabbos, it would be observed even on Shabbos. What is the great spiritual significance of this fast day?

There was a very deep destruction that took place on this day. It was the beginning of the destruction of a place in the world where the purpose of Creation was revealed. It signified the beginning of an event where we could no longer go to a place in the world where the clarity of Hashem’s presence was felt, where the purpose of the Creation was revealed. Certainly, the purpose of Creation can still be revealed, even in our own times, but it has become very hidden since the beginning of the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash [which took place on the 10th of Teves].

To illustrate the idea, we know that all of Creation came from Hashem’s word. In the times of the Beis HaMikdash, a person could sense Hashem so clearly that even when he viewed a simple creation in front of him, he saw how it came from Hashem. One saw the light outside and was aware that the light comes from Hashem’s light, which He created on the first day. One was able to see then how the water, the earth, the sky, the sun, the moon, the heavens and all of the stars in it, the plants, mountains, animals and all people in the world, all of Creation, comes from Hashem – from the ten expressions that He used to create the world.

Today, when we see all of this, we do not see it all as the expression of Hashem. We just see a world in front of us at face value. That is the meaning of the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash! When the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, it was not only a massive burning and an obliteration of an edifice of many stones. It was a destruction of all that the Beis HaMikdash stood for!

The beginning of the tragedies took place on the 10th of Teves, because the purpose of the Creation went into hiding, on this day. It was no longer revealed clearly in the world, and instead it went into a concealed, hidden state. The 10th of Teves is about the destruction of all the spiritual revelation that used to exist clearly in Creation. Today, this spiritual revelation is hidden. A simple, average Jew in the times of the Beis HaMikdash could feel it. Today, the average Jew cannot.

The Chofetz Chaim wrote many important sefarim, such as Chofetz Chaim and Shemiras HaLashon, which had many novel halachos on the laws of permitted and forbidden speech. He also wrote the monumental work Mishnah Berurah, which explains many aspects of daily halachah. But he also wrote a sefer on the laws of Kodshim, detailing the laws of the sacrifices and avodah in the Beis HaMikdash, which he wrote for Kohanim, so that Kohanim can know the halachos of the avodah in the Beis HaMikdash. He said that he wrote this sefer because the arrival of Mashiach was imminent, and that Kohanim should therefore be prepared for the halachos. He had very clear emunah in the arrival of Mashiach. His emunah in Moshiach’s arrival was clear and simple.

Yet, the same Chofetz Chaim, who possessed such strong and clear emunah, also worked very hard to maintain his emunah. He said that whenever he felt somewhat lacking in emunah, he would open up a Chumash and begin to read through the first chapter of parshas Beraishis, to renew his emunah. He would begin with “In the beginning, Hashem created the heavens and the earth”, and review all of the events, until he felt his clarity of emunah again. Then he would return to his regular learning.

The destruction that took place on the tenth of Teves was a total antithesis to the above.

Why Do We Want The Beis HaMikdash?

Many people know about this, but how many people live it? In the times of the Beis HaMikdash everyone felt it clearly and yearned all the time for even more closeness.

Every day we daven for the return of the Beis HaMikdash, in Shemoneh Esrei and in Bircas HaMazon. But in our souls, we have to await it. Each person needs to wonder if he really has the yearning, if he really feels what he’s missing without the Beis HaMikdash. Do any of us have a yearning that it be rebuilt? And if we do, why do want it? For what do we need it? We believe in the Sages that there will be a third Beis HaMikdash, as Hashem promised us through the words of His prophets, and that it will be eternal. But for what do we need it? First we need to yearn for it.

Fasting on Asarah B’Teves is the basic level of observance, and it is an obligation upon each Jew, but it is only the external part of this day. We need to infuse an internal meaning into this day, besides for actually observing the fast. The internal part of our avodah on the tenth of Teves is, that we need to wonder if we want the Beis HaMikdash – and in addition, why we want it.

The Sages said that all Heavenly blessing came to the world because of the Beis HaMikdash. So if a person is missing livelihood, he might yearn for the Beis HaMikdash so that he can be financially secure. Others are more spiritual than this, and they want the Beis HaMikdash because they want atonement for their sins. Only someone who feels bothered and pained at his sins can relate to this yearning. This is a higher level than the first kind of person, yet it is not the highest level to reach. A higher level is to yearn for the revelations of Torah that were available in the world because of the spiritual effects of the Beis HaMikdash. But even this isn’t the highest level to yearn for the Beis HaMikdash. The truest reason to yearn for the Beis HaMikdash is, as explained earlier, because it was the revelation of Hashem’s presence on this world.

Some people don’t care at all for the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash. They are the worst results of the destruction. But even in those who do yearn for it, they need to know the reason why we should want it rebuilt. We need to yearn for it because it enabled us to have more emunah, a clearer recognition of Hashem!

In Conclusion

Every person on his own level should yearn for a greater closeness with Hashem, and this should be the reason why one should desire the rebuilding the Beis HaMikdash. But it should not be limited to this, for that would just be self-serving. It is about wishing for a world where everyone will know of Hashem. It should be a yearning for the betterment of the entire world.

The more one awaits the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash for this reason, the more one is truly yearning for the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash. Just like a person misses his house when he leaves it and he wishes to return to it, so did we have a Beis HaMikdash, which was each Jew’s true bayis, his true home. Just as a person misses his home when he leaves it and he wants to go back to it, so does each person need to yearn to return to the “house” in his own soul: The Beis HaMikdash. That is our true home, our spiritual fort, where we belong to.

Every day when we daven Shemoneh Esrei, when we ask for the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash, let us think for just a moment, about why we want it. Are we saying it only because it’s part of the text of Shemoneh Esrei established by the Men of Great Assembly…? Or do we truly want the Beis HaMikdash to be rebuilt?

Let us awaken in ourselves a true yearning for the Beis HaMikdash, and let us wonder why we should want it. We should truly yearn for its rebuilding, but for the truest and innermost reason for its rebuilding. When that is how we yearn for it, we will certainly merit to see it rebuilt in our times!

Translated from the Hebrew audio shiur:
https://www.bilvavi.net/sugya/chodesh.teves

Doing a Better Hallel On Chanukah

Chanukah is a time of L’hodos U’l’hallel, To give thanks and praise to Hashem and we fulfill that obligation with the saying of the Full Hallel on Chanukah for all eight days. Here are some notes from Maharal: Emerging Patterns by Yaakov Rosenblatt on Hallel.

Give Praise Servants of Hashem from this time forth and forever more
Despite Hashem’s loftiness, He is still intimately involved with the life of man and continually bestows goodness through kindness, judgment or mercy.
He raise the needy from the dust is through judgment because the poor should be provided for.
To seat them with the nobles, nobles of His people is through kindness because although raising the poor out of poverty is just, elevating them to sit with nobles is an act of kindness.
He transforms the barren women into a joyful mother of children is an act of mercy since this women is not capable and therefore is not in the realm of judgment, nor is it kindness since children are not above and beyond human needs, rather it is mercy because even though this woman is unable to have children naturally, Hashem still allows her to conceive and bear children.

When Yisroel Went of out of Egypt, the House of Yaakov from a people of a Strange Language
After praising Hashem for His kindness through normal realms, we now praise Hashem for the miracles that transcend nature.
The sea saw and fled, the mountains skipped like rams, the hills like young sheep – water takes the shape of its container and the Earth is shaped by man. When Hashem acts and gives form and definition to all creation it is natural that the sea fled and the mountains skipped.
Hashem turned the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a fountain of waters – when Hashem is the force, even a rock is shaped effortlessly.

Not to us Hashem, but to Your Name Give Glory
This Psalm says the reason that Hashem performs miracles for the Jews is to give recognition to His name, His love and His truth. Only Hashem deserves this recognition and not things like idols which clearly have no power and are weaker than man. Man’s powers are listed in decreasing importance: speech, sight, hearing, smell, feeling, walking, and making sounds.

Hashem will Bless our Remembrance: He will Bless the House of Yisrael
Hashem will Bless our Remembrance requests that the lasting impact we will have on others and the world will be a blessing.
The Dead cannot praise Hashem, nor can any who go down into silence shows that only when the human body and the world are functioning properly can they “sing” the praises of Hashem. King David says allow us to live, allow us to thrive, so our very existence can proclaim your glory.

I love Hashem Who Hears my Voice and my Supplications
You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. King David thanks Hashem for saving his soul which represents the spiritual, the eyes which are the connection between the spiritual and the physical because they do not actively enter the world, but monitor it for the mind/soul to process, and the feet which represent the physical. Tears represent a loss of part of the soul.

How can I repay Hashem for all His kindness to me?
I will carry the cup that You have filled with salvation, and call upon the name of Hashem – A cup that is filled represents ones meaningful accomplishments and we think Hashem for the ability to act in meaningful ways.
I will carry …in my arms to show the cup that you filled precedes me and proclaims your greatness
I will pay my vows to Hashem in the Presence of all His People to use every opportunity to proclaim the greatness of Hashem and to publicly honor Hashem’s glory

Give Thanks to Hashem for He is Good
Thanks also mean to concede, so to the extent that a person recognizes and acknowledges the Hashem has given him everything is the extent to which he will thank Him. Different groups: humanity, Jews, Kohanim and G-d fearing people, have experienced different benefits and will therefore thank Hashem differently.

Out of My Distress I called upon Hashem
There are three levels of hatred, basic dislike (all the nations) because of economic, cultural or military threats, dislike due to differences in values which only the Jews hold (they surrounded me) and deep seated hatred (they surrounded me like bees) due to the subconscious understanding that the success of the nations is dependent on the Jew’s failure. If we act according to our spiritual potential the world’s event will be centralized around us for our benefit. If we do not, we are punished and the the nations are successful.

O praise Hashem all you Nations
Hallelukah combines a word of praise with Hashem’s name and is used to praise the miraculous because the only the one who created the worlds (Heh – this world, Yud – the next) can suspend the rules to perform miracles when he sees fit.

Chanukah – Transcending Self-Centeredness

By Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller Gottlieb

The Greeks centered their opposition to the Jews on three religious laws that one the surface of things couldn’t be less threatening to them or their way of life. Why would a Greek concern himself about someone else circumcising his son? If a neighbor likes having three rather lavish meals on Saturday after attending the synagogue why let it occupy space in your mind? The most puzzling was their antagonism towards consecrating the new moon, a religious ceremony that had no observable impact other than being the basis of the Jewish calendar. Can you imagine losing any sleep over when Ramadan comes out next year?

The underlying antagonism was caused by what these commandments represent. Circumcision is a statement. It tell you that you are not born perfect, that perfection has to be earned, and that the path towards perfection requires a certain degree of sacrifice, and a certain measure of authentic submission to a force higher than your own ego. Nothing could possibly be less Greek.

Shabbos takes us even further from the Greek vision of a human centered world. What we say by keeping Shabbos is that even our creativity and our ability to dominate nature and make it our own, is not the end of the story. The highest level from our point of view is taking all of our creative energy and saying, “let go. It’s time to step back and see what God, not I, created”. When you see things from that angle, it isn’t hard to see what was so offensive about defining time through ritual instead of through human observation.

What all of this tells you is that this is the time of year that you can decide once and for all that you can finally stop being a closet Hellenist. You body, your endeavors and your sense of reality can all go beyond the limitations of the little castle called “me” and explore a new planet, one called “transcendence”. You can be bigger than your ego and your assumptions.

Let the light of the candles that reflect eternal truth give you enough light to step into the next phase of your life, into a more holy and God aware future.

The Eight Sheets of Chanukah

By Ruby

With 5 weeks left to my son’s Bar Mitzvah, invitations were sitting at home waiting to be addressed and mailed. All my wife had to do was create the spreadsheet with all the addresses, set up the mail merge, and feed the envelopes through the printer. I had the really tough job – to buy stamps – and I was determined to do it right. I estimated 150 stamps would do. But which theme stamp would be most appropriate for a Bar Mitzvah? I went looking at the USPS website. Flags? Too standard. “Happy Birthday”? Too juvenile. “I Love You”? Too mushy. Flowers? Too feminine. Fighter planes? Maybe… But not very mitzvah-ish. Then I saw them. Chanukah stamps with a dreidle. Perfect! We’ll be mailing them on Chanukah. And they come in sheets of 20, so I needed 8 sheets of Chanukah. What could be better?

Off to the post office on Pine St. I went, and when my turn came I happily requested “8 sheets of Hanukah, please”.

The clerk frowned and said “Hanukah? We’re out of Hanukah”.

“No! it can’t be!” I exclaimed. “You must have Hanukah stamps”.

So she looked and looked through all her drawers and all her folders. In the end, all she could find was one single sheet of Hanukah stamps.

“But that won’t do”, I said. “One sheet won’t last. I need eight sheets of Hanukah.”

She called over to the next clerk who looked through his folders. He came up with another two. “Three, that’s all we have”, she said.

Suddenly emboldened, I said “Please check in the back. I know you will find 8”.

Her eyebrows raised at my attitude, she headed towards the back. As she passed each other clerk I saw her say something to them, and each time the clerk shook his head. After checking with the last clerk, she looked across the room at me and shrugged. I gave her a nod of encouragement and she disappeared into the back. (If I were one of the people standing behind me in line I would have killed me…) Several minutes later she emerged with a triumphant look on her face.

“8 sheets of Hanukah!” she proclaimed.

“Thank you so much for your perseverance”, I said. “I knew you would find 8”.

“How could you be so sure?” she asked.

“Why, it’s the miracle of Chanukah”, I said.

A Freilichen Chanukah to All.

Originally Published December 22, 2006.

An E-Mail To My Brother-In-Law

Good afternoon. I wanted to touch base with you and apologize first for not being able to do this over the phone since our schedules usually make it hard to find time.

I realize that you have decided not to have bagels and lox at the brunch for your parent’s anniversary, yet this now puts me in a difficult position. On one hand, I try to keep kosher to the best of my ability, yet on the other hand, I strive to build bridges of understanding and tolerance to others who may not do what ~wife’s name~ and I do. As you can see, if I choose the option of eating strictly kosher it may be detrimental to my relationships with others who do not. And, if I eat whatever non-kosher food that is served than I feel as if I have compromised my beliefs. It is truly a lose/lose situation on my part. Either way, I go home without a good feeling.

Last Sunday, I suggested ~name of kosher establishment ~ bagels, lox, and cream cheese because I thought it would be something we could enjoy and also because I thought it to be a win/win situation for everyone. Since you opted for a lighter option that is also better for your father’s health, perhaps ~wife’s name~ could bring something, and that way you can still serve whatever you would like. I am completely cognizant of that fact that it is not my place to weigh-in on menu selection in your home. I am not attempting even in the slightest to dictate what others eat, only what I choose to eat. What I eat or refrain from eating is not commentary on anyone else’s life despite the fact that is repeatedly seen as such. Not once have I ever told a family member, or anyone else for that matter, that what they are doing is “wrong”.

I hope this e-mail will give you insight into my thought process. If you could see inside my heart you would see that I wrote these words without a trace of divisiveness. I ask that you give us the ability to help us participate and celebrate along with you. I think that misunderstandings that we have had in the past stem simply from a lack of honest dialogue. Both ~wife’s name~ and I strive to correct this and want to break down barriers of misunderstanding that may exist.

Originally Posted September, 2006

Being Thankful for Thanksgiving

When it comes to Thanksgiving, some families within Torah observant Jewry tend to have the attitude: “I’m thankful the whole year. I say Modeh Ani every single morning. Why should I celebrate Thanksgiving?”

The truth is that when I was growing up, as a third generation American with marginal Synagogue affiliation, my family ‘did’ thanksgiving, but it was never a big deal. When I got married, things changed (for the better).

As a married couple, Thanksgiving became a big deal. My wife is a first generation American and her family is totally into Thanksgiving. When we spend it with family or friends we go all out. Turkey, sweet potatoes, stuffing, my homemade “I can’t believe the’re pareve” mashed potatoes, and apple pie.

For Baalei Teshuva, Thanksgiving is almost the best of both worlds-the secular and the holy. It provides an opportunity to be with family and friends whom we might not normally have a meal with,a meal without the pressure of: zimiros, accidentally turning off of lights, constant explaining of why we make tea or coffee differently on Shabbos, etc.

Over the years I’ve listened to my co-workers complain about the pressure of making such a lavish meal, “All that hard work just to eat food for one hour”. For the Torah observant Jew, Thanksgiving is a piece of cake. We make “lavish meals” every weekend.

I often tell friends of mine that I love Thanksgiving because we can eat like Shabbos, but still turn off the lights and watch TV (although I’m not a big sports fan, so I usually don’t watch the big games).

In recent years, due to geographical logistics we haven’t spent many Thanksgivings with my wife’s family, but some years, we did. There were kashrus challenges, like a limited supply of kosher pots, pans, and utensils, but we were able to make the entire meal kosher. Armed with the ability to kasher an oven and several phone numbers of various Rabbis on speed dial, we really enjoyed to it. The zechus (merit) of the family members hosting our ‘kosher Thanksgiving’ is something they might never understand, but my wife and I do. The memories that my kids will have of spending Thanksgiving with family is something very dear to us. I am very thankful.

Originally Published on 11/11/2006

David Linn’s The grATTITUDE Newsletter

One of the hats that David wears is The Gratitude Dude. He’s been writing, speaking, and giving workshops on improving your gratitude quotient for many years. He recently started a newsletter called “The grATTITUDE” that you definitely should subscribe to.

You can sign up for the weekly gratitude email, The grATTITUDE at http://bit.ly/gratitudeemail

Here is a recent sample

The grATTITUDE
Your weekly injection of gratitude inspiration, insight, education and practical advice.

“Gratitude makes what we have enough.”
— Melody Beattie

What’s the Good Word?

Hedonic Adaptation/Hedonic Treadmill

Hedonic Adaptation refers to the idea that people’s levels of happiness tend to return to their start point despite significant positive or negative events in their lives.

So, if we were able to say that someone’s level of happiness is a 7 out of 10 and then that person takes the vacation of a lifetime, even though that would likely bump their happiness up, it would eventually return to the 7.

The same is generally true when someone experiences a negative event like the loss of a loved one– their happiness level will drop, understandably, but will gradually return to the 7.

While this is a good thing when dealing with negative events– it boosts recovery and resilience– it’s not a good thing at all when it comes to positive events. As soon as the bump from the positive event passes, we go looking for something new.

That’s why Hedonic Adaptation is also called the Hedonic Treadmill because we keep looking for new things to bump us up but we essentially end up getting nowhere– we’re right back where we started.

Gratitude plays an important role in slowing down Hedonic Adaptation to positive events. Gratitude, particularly through speaking or writing about our appreciation for happy things and events, has a savoring quality that makes the event last longer. Additionally, grateful people are generally happier with their lives and, as such, are not constantly craving new things.

Dive into gratitude and jump off the hedonic treadmill.

Making it Work at Work

Gratitude in the workplace isn’t fluff. There are serious studies conducted by top-tier medical and business schools and published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals that evidence that gratitude has a positive effect on nearly every single business metric— from employee engagement and retention to psychological safety and creativity and, of course profit.

One of the surprising things about gratitude in the workplace is that peer-to-peer gratitude is often more important than gratitude from workplace superiors. This might be true because your peers know you better, interact with you more and aren’t perceived to be expressing gratitude because that’s what bosses are supposed to do. Smart businesses are instilling cultures of appreciation that train leaders but also foster peer-to-peer appreciation.

Your Turn

Among all of the gratitude habits or interventions, writing a gratitude letter is one of the most popular and most studied.

The concept is quite simple. Write a letter to someone expressing, in as much detail as possible, the gratitude that you have for them.

Many people recommend that you read the letter directly to the recipient, in person if possible. I think that in our digital era, receiving a physical letter in the mail feels special and shows the recipient that you are thinking about them and that you made an extra effort.

Here are a few tips provided by the Greater Good Science Center:

• Write as though you are addressing this person directly (“Dear ______”).
• Don’t worry about perfect grammar or spelling.
• Describe in specific terms what this person did, why you are grateful to this person, and how this person’s behavior affected your life. Try to be as concrete as possible.
• Describe what you are doing in your life now and how you often remember his or her efforts.
•Try to keep your letter to roughly one page (~300 words).

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this email, please consider sharing this sign-up link: bit.ly/gratitudeemail.

With Gratitude,
Dave Linn, The Gratitude Dude
In collaboration with A Good World Company.

P.S Hey there! Thanks for reading this week’s edition of The grATTITUDE. Every week, we’ll send out an email newsletter filled with tips and tricks and all things gratitude. We’d love to hear your feedback, like what you loved in this week’s email and what you’d like to see next time. Send an email to thegrattitude@gmail.com and we’ll be sure to read your message.

To reach Dave directly, email him at dave@generosityseries.com. To find out more about A Good World Company, email Yehudis at yehudis@agoodworldcompany.com.

Copyright © 2020 The grATTITUDE, All rights reserved.

When Opposites Attract

Why did Avraham consider Eliezer to be cursed if Lavan referred to him as “the blessed of HaShem”?
If the cursed cannot bond with the blessed how are we to understand the unions of Shechem and Dinah, the Queen of Shevah and Shlomo the King et al?
Why didn’t Eliezer seek a girl who would do chessed proactively before having to be asked?

He [Noach] said, “Cursed is Cannan! He shall be a slave’s slave to his brothers”

— Bereishis 9:25

 “I will compel you with an oath in the name of HaShem, L-rd of Heaven and L-rd of earth that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I live.”

— Bereishis 24:3

“My master compelled me with an oath ‘Do not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites in whose land I reside. Instead you must go to my father’s house, to my family, and get a wife for my son there.’ I [then] said to my master ‘Perhaps the woman [from your family] will not follow me [back to Canaan]’? “

— Bereishis 24:37-39

Perhaps the woman will not follow me: It [the word אֻלַי (perhaps)] is written [lacking a “vav” and may be read] אֵלַי (to me). Eliezer had a daughter, and he sought a pretext so that Avraham would tell him, to turn to him [i.e. Eliaezers family], so that Yitzchok would marry his daughter. Avraham said to him, “My son is blessed, and you are cursed [Eliezer was a descendant of Canaan who had been cursed by Noach], and an accursed one cannot bond with a blessed one.”

— Rashi ibid

And Lavan said “Come O he who is blessed by HaShem! Why are you still standing outdoors? I have cleared the house [of what you might find offensive] and prepared a place for the camels.”

— Bereishis 24:31

Why is Mt. Sinai so called? [Sinai is, alliteratively, similar to the lashon kodesh-biblical Hebrew; word for hatred] Because it was there that hatred descended to the idolaters [for they rejected the Torah that was revealed there].

— Shabbos 89A and Rashi ibid

The intensity of the hatred that ignorami have for Torah scholars exceeds that of the anti-Semitism that the idolaters bear towards the nation of Israel …

— Pesachim 49B

As faces in the reflecting pool mirror one another, so too do the hearts of men.

— Mishlei 27:19

He [Eliezer] prayed O HaShem, L-rd of my master Avraham, be with me today and grant favor to my master Avraham … If I say to a girl ‘Tip over your jug and let me have a drink’ and she responds ‘drink and I will also hydrate your camels’ she will be the one whom You have designated [as a bride] for your servant Yitzchok.”

— Bereishis 24:12,14

When discussing the metaphysics of matchmaking Avraham declares “… an accursed one cannot bond with a blessed one.” Yet TeNaC”h-the Jewish Torah canon; is replete with desired, attempted and actual unions, both marital and extra-marital, between evil and good.  The assertion that evil cannot unite with good, that curse cannot cleave to blessing; seems to be unsupportable in light of such matches and near-miss marriages as those of Shechem and Dinah, Potiphar’s wife and Yoseph, Kozbee and Zimri and Achashveirosh and Esther, et al.

Moreover Rav Tzadok, the Kohen of Lublin, observes that while, per Chazal, Avraham rejected Eliezers marriage proposal on the grounds of Eliezer being cursed the Torah quotes Lavan as describing Eliezer as “he who is blessed by HaShem.”  Presumably “the Torah of truth” would not record nonsense, hyperbole or the insincere flattery of a sycophant. If Lavans words are true it means that at some point between Avraham rejecting his shidduch proposal and Lavan greeting him, Eliezer underwent a qualitative transformation from being accursed to being blessed.

The Lubliner Kohen illuminates the dynamic of a metamorphosis at least as astonishing as that of the caterpillar-into-butterfly variety.

Evil and Good are in a state of constant and intense antipathy towards each other.  They want no truck with one another and do not desire merger. Shlomo the king teaches in Mishlei that “as faces in the reflecting pool mirror one another, so too do the the hearts of men.” The nature of “emotion” is cyclical and reciprocal and so, the vicious cycle of abhorrence and recrimination between Evil and Good perpetually intensifies the alienation between the two.  But, at the risk of sounding trite, this begs the question: Who started the hostilities and estrangement?  Who’s to blame for the inability to come together?

A close reading of Rashi, “an accursed (one) cannot bond with a blessed (one)”reveals that it is evil that finds itself incapable of cleaving to good; it is not the other way around. I might add that this understanding is further supported by the gemara in Pesachim 49B that speaks of the hatred of the ignoramii and the idolatrous nations first, although it is safe to presume that the Torah Scholars and the Nation of Israel bear reciprocal loathing towards those who hate them. The passage in Shabbos 89A that pinpoints the origin of the Divine Hatred of the idolatrous nations at Sinai, only after they rejected the Torah, further bolsters this argument. Yet this makes it even more difficult to understand why it was Eliezer who initiated the proposed match between the daughter of Eliezer the cursed and the son of Avraham the blessed.

It is important to note that that Eliezer never articulated an explicit marriage proposal.  The proposal, such as it was, was an insubstantial allusion, a mere wordplay.  The Vilna Gaon explains that Chazal detected the subliminal marriage proposal in Eliezer employing the word אֻלַיperhaps; connoting a desired outcome, rather than פן–lest; connoting a scenario to be avoided. Moreover the Kotzker Rebbe insightfully points out that even this mere hint of a proposed match does not appear in the Torahs narrative of the actual dialogue between Eliezer and Avraham.  It is only later, during Eliezers repetition of that conversation to Rivkas family, that he had an epiphany and understood why he had employed the word אֻלַי rather than פן.

Along these lines, and to address the issues of evil and good bonding, the Lubliner Kohen maintains that during his actual conversation with Avraham, Eliezer revealed his subconscious desires in what contemporaries might call a Freudian slip, because he only had blessed potential at the time, but was not quite ready to transform into a full-fledged blessed being until after his encounter with Rivka. The nascence of his transformation from cursed to blessed began as soon as he accepted the mission of his master Avraham but, as he had not yet actualized his potential for blessedness he was, as yet, incapable of verbalizing his desire to unite with and cleave to the good and blessed on an overt level.

Read more When Opposites Attract

Surrendering to Humility

Tuesday 23 Cheshvan

Humility is not denying your talents or withdrawing within yourself. Humility does not mean that you are worthless or insignificant. Humility is recognizing the incredible gifts that Hashem has blessed you with and using them to make the world a better place. Humility is surrendering your will to Hashem’s will and in that way becoming far greater than what you could ever become alone. At times this act of surrender is excruciatingly painful, but if we are able to channel our talents in a holy way, we merit partnering with Hashem in infusing our world with holiness, and blessing.

R’ Aryeh Goldman offers 100 words of daily chizuk to uplift and inspire Yidden to live a meaningful life deeply connected to Hashem.

Web Site: https://www.100wordsofchizuk.com

Whats App Chat: https://chat.whatsapp.com/CKVftNO28QlKIMpDko8688

The Secret Of All Growth

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

To receive Bilvavi on the Parsha – send an email with Subject “Subscribe” to subscribe@bilvavi.net

Avraham Avinu’s test of the binding of Yitzchok, which required him to show mesirus nefesh, was a fundamental lesson in how to acquire all levels of avodah. The Mesillas Yesharim says, “Sanctity is at first exertion, and in the end, a gift.” This is not only true of the level of sanctity, but it is true of all the levels after that, which includes even ruach hakodesh and techiyas hameisim.

This is a rule that applies to anything spiritual we want to acquire, even the most basic level. Any spiritual attainment requires mesirus nefesh on our part – if not total mesirus nefesh, which only a few individuals attain, we at least need the minimal level of mesirus nefesh, which is: To exert ourselves just a little bit beyond our regular level.

When one is clear about this and he puts this into practice, he can enter into a life of going beyond his natural capabilities, and herein lays the success in life. If one is not clear about this, he may try hard his entire life and he may attain much, but he will remain in his normal human limitations. A life of practicing mesirus nefesh enables one to reach above his natural level.

The spiritual tasks in our life are daunting. A Jew may have the aspiration to know all of the Torah, which is wider than the sea and longer than the earth – this includes all five books of the Chumash, Nach, all of Mishnayos, the Talmud Bavli and Talmud Yerushalmi, the Sifra, Sifrei, Tosefta, and more – with all of the commentaries of the Rishonim and Acharonim! In addition to this, one also has the 613 mitzvos to keep. Even though we do not fulfill all the 613 mitzvos today, we have plenty of them to keep. And in addition, one is also a husband and father, and he has to provide for his household. He is busy from various responsibilities in life. He has to do chessed, spread Torah to others, and set side time to prepare for davening. When is there time to live and finish everything?!

The true answer is that there is no time! We really do not have enough time to finish everything. What is possible for us, however, is to enter into an inner world (our olam pnimi), which takes us beyond the limitations of This World. When it becomes opened to a person, only then can one reach much more than what he is naturally capable of.

May Hashem enable us that Avraham’s act of the binding of Yitzchok on the Altar should radiate within the depths of our souls.

100 words of Chizuk

R’ Aryeh Goldman offers 100 words of daily chizuk to uplift and inspire Yidden to live a meaningful life deeply connected to Hashem.

Web Site
https://www.100wordsofchizuk.com

Whats App Chat
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Tuesday 16 Cheshvan

Most of us begin a program of transformation highly inspired with the best intentions. However before long we lose the initial excitement and hit a plateau. This is when our true desire to reach our goal is tested. At that moment our persistence waivers and most just give up. To achieve greatness you can never give up. Champions are born out of a resolute persistence in the face of adversity. Legends see the moments of stagnation, the plateau, the challenges, as opportunities to reveal their innermost Ratzon (will), and in so doing, inevitably bring themselves closer to their goals.

The Only Absolute Connection We Have

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

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In Parshas Lech Lecha, Avraham Avinu is told by Hashem, “Go from your land, from your birthplace, from the house of your father, to the land which I will show you.”

Our Sages list this as one of the “ten nisyonos (trials)” which Avraham was tested with, and we are also taught by our Sages the rule, “Maaseh Avos, Siman L’Banim” – “The actions of the forefathers is a sign for the children.” Just as Avraham Avinu went through ten trials where he was tested by Hashem, so does every soul go through “ten trials.”

This does not mean that we are given the same exact tests as Avraham Avinu, but our tests are a reflection of those tests. We are not always told by Hashem to leave our country and move elsewhere, but the lesson of it always remains true in our own lives, where we are confronted with the spiritual test of having to leave behind our past in general.

Avraham Avinu’s test was that he had to disconnect from his roots, and leave it all behind to go out there into the world. His country, his birthplace, the house of his father, were all different aspects that bound him to his past, and he was told to disconnect from it and leave it all behind, in order to become elevated. This shows us that there exists in the soul an ability to disconnect from that which we are powerfully connected to, to that which we feel permanence in, on This World.

Avraham Avinu was told, “Go from your land, from your birthplace, from the house of your father.” The soul becomes disconnected from its root in Heaven in order to come down onto this world, and at death, the soul doesn’t want to leave this world, now that it has become attached to it. If a person lived a life in which he grew attached to materialism, he will suffer a disconnection from it upon death. But if a person lived a spiritual life, an internal kind of life, a Torah life – at death, he will only disconnect from this world in the physical sense. The spiritual world, the inner world he had lived through his neshamah on this world, does not become severed from him. It continues and it intensifies after death.

One needs to be aware that everything on this world is temporary; every time and period of your life is a temporary situation. The nisayon (test) which we have on this world is: Will we form any absolute connection, other than with Hashem, Torah, and Klal Yisrael? The deep power in the soul to have absolute connection must be channeled to Hashem, Torah, and Yisrael.

Noach was a good man, a good man, a good man…

Noach was a good man
a good man, a good man
Noach was a good man
….In his time
– A Cheder Song

Noach is described as a Tzaddik, but the first Rashi on the Parsha casts a shadow on his righteousness. Dig in to the parsha and rediscover Noach’s greatness.

Update: Rabbi Nebenzhal has a good analysis of the above issue here. Hat tip: Bob Miller

As mentioned previously, Rabbi Rietti was kind enough to allow us to post the outline here, but you can purchase the entire outline of the Chumash for the low price of $11.95 for yourself and your family.

Noach
#6 Building Noach’s Ark
#7 The Flood
#8 Mt. Ararat
#9 Rainbow – Noach Drunk
#10 The Descendants of Shem, Cham & Yafet
#11 Tower of Bavel – 10 Generations of Noach

#6 Building Noach’s Ark
* Praise of Noach
* The Three Sons of Noach
* World corruption
* “Behold! I will destroy them utterly!”
* Build an ark
* Compartments
* 300 X 50 X 30 cubits
* Skylight – Slanted Roof – 3 Stories
* 1 Male – 1 Female of every animal – Store Food

#7 The Flood
* 7 pairs of kosher animals
* 2 pairs of non-kosher animals
* 7 pairs of birds
* Noach 600 years old when flood began (2nd month, 17th day)
* 40 days & 40 nights – 15 cubits above the highest mountain
* Total destruction
* 150 days

#8 Mt. Ararat
* 150 days till water receded
* 7th Month, 17th day, the Ark rested on Mt. Ararat
* 10th Month, 1st day mountain tops become visible
* Raven
* Dove #1, #2, #3
* 1st Tishrei Noach opened gate of Ark
* 2nd Month, 27th day, land was totally dry (exactly 365 days after the flood began).
* ‘Leave the Ark!’
* Noach built an Altar
* G-d appeased & promises never to flood the earth again
* Four seasons

#9 Rainbow – Noach Drunk
* Blessing to Noach “Be fruitful and Multiply!”
* All living creatures will fear you
* You can eat meat but not flesh from living animal
* Violation of suicide
* Death penalty for murder
* Command to be fruitful and multiply
* G-d promises never to flood entire world again
* Rainbow is sign of this promise
* Noach planted a vineyard
* Drunk
* Canaan cursed: slave of slaves to his brothers
* Blessed Shem and Yafet
* Noach died 950

#10 The Descendants of Noach
* Descendants of Yafet and Cham (Nimrod grandson of Cham & 1st world despot)
* Descendents of Canaan
* Descendants of Shem

#11 Tower of Bavel – 10 Generations of Shem
* One Language
* The Tower
* HaShem scattered them
* 10 Generations of Shem
* 11th Gen. Shem 600
* 12th Gen. Arpachshad 438
* 13th Gen. Shelach 433
* 14th Gen. Ever 464
* 15th Gen. Peleg 239
* 16th Gen. Re’oo 239
* 17th Gen. Serug 230
* 18th Gen. Nachor 248
* 19th Gen. Terach 205 – Avram-Nachor-Haran
* Haran – Lot – Milka & Yiska (Sarai). Haran dies in Ur Kasdim
* Avram marries Sarai
* Nachor marries Milka
* 20th Gen. Avram
* Terach leaves Ur Kasdim with Avram, grandson Lot & Sarai
* Terach dies in Charan

Bilvavi on Succos Download and Intro of Inner Meaning Behind The Four Species and the Sukkah

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download some amazing Drashos on Succos

The Inner Meaning Behind The Four Species and the Sukkah

In the Yom Tov of Sukkos, the main mitzvos are to shake the four species and to sit in the sukkah. (There used to also be the mitzvah of nisuch hamayim in the Beis Hamikdash, but we no longer have the Beis Hamikdash).

The mitzvah of the four species involves movement – we shake them and move them around, which symbolizes how we want to move away from evil, and instead to come closer to Hashem. By contrast, the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah involves no movement at all – we sit in it and don’t move at all. This symbolizes a different aspect of our avodas Hashem: to reach the point of “non-movement.”

In other words, there are two steps in our avodas Hashem- sometimes we have to “move”, and sometimes we “don’t move”.[1]

Sukkos of Today and Sukkos of the Future

There is a halachah on Sukkos that we have to sit specifically in the “shadow” (“tzeil”) of the sukkah. This is the sukkah of nowadays – we sit in the sukkah’s shadow, which symbolizes how Hashem’s radiance is concealed from us.

However, in the future, Chazal state that the sukkah will be made from the skin of the leviathan – it will be a sukkah of entirely light. The Sukkah of the future will be the perfect sukkah, in which “all citizens” (“kol ha’ezrach”) will be enveloped within it; “ezrach”, “citizen”, is rooted in the word “zerichah”, “light.” This alludes to the sukkah of the future, which will be totally light. This is because the depth behind the sukkah is not just to be “in the shadow” of the sukkah, but to sit in the light of Hashem.

Dovid Hamelech says that “Hashem is my light, and my salvation.” Chazal expound on this verse that “my light” is referring to Rosh Hashanah, while “my salvation” is referring to Yom Kippur. Sukkos, which is the continuation of this, is the actual revelation of “my light”, Rosh Hashanah – which is entirely Hashem’s light.

It is only nowadays that the sukkah is like a “shadow”, because since there is evil in the world, the evil places a “shadow” on the “light” of Rosh Hashanah and dims it from its full effect. But in the future, there will be no more evil, and then Sukkos will no longer be a concept of shadow, but rather a concept of complete spiritual light.

Shemini Atzeres – The D’veykus With Hashem Above All Spiritual Light

Even higher than Sukkos is the level of Shemini Atzeres, which is the day of complete unity between Hashem and the Jewish people. It is a power that is above even the spiritual light revealed through Rosh Hashanah and Sukkos.[2]

Chazal say of this day that Hashem said, “Remain with me one more day”. This is the great desire of Hashem toward His people, and it was there even before Hashem created light on the first day; this great desire that He has to us returns on Shemini Ateres.

[1] The Rav has been brief here in this fundamental concept; we will elaborate here to give more background. Generally speaking, the lower mode of Avodas Hashem involves movement, such as the six days of the week, when we move and work, representing the mundane. On Shabbos we don’t move, because we do not work; thus non-movement is always seen as the higher aspect of our Avodas Hashem. In sefer Da Es Menuchasecha (which is available online in English as The Search for Serenity), these concepts are explained at length in regards to achieving menuchas hanefesh – that the more we reach our “non-moving” state of our soul, the closer we come to our inner peace. The innermost part of our soul, our Yechidah, is a non-moving part of our existence, because our actual self is very still, content with its existence, for it is a cheilek eloka mimaal, a “portion of Hashem”. Our very essence is unmoving because it is rooted in Hashem, who is unmoving. Non-movement is also explained more in sefer Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh: Shabbos Kodesh, as well as in sefer Da Es Hargoshosecha (soon to be released in English as “Getting To Know Your Feelings”). This footnote does not nearly exhaust the topic; it is a very vast subject which the Rov frequently discusses, and the references we have given here are the main sources where the Rov discusses it at length.

[2] Editor’s Note: See sefer Sifsei Chaim: Moadim (Vol. I) who explains how the spirituality of Shemini Atzeres is deeper than the first days of Sukkos. On Sukkos, we have the mitzvah of sukkah and the four species, because we are given these tools on Sukkos to reach closeness to Hashem through them. However, Shemini Atzeres is a higher connection we have with Hashem, as it is the culmination of the entire Yomim Noraim; thus, it doesn’t require us to sit in the sukkah or to shake the four species, because it is more of a direct connection with Hashem.

Rav Soloveitchik on Awakening the Emotional on Yom Kippur

In the Sefer, Before Hashem You Will Be Purified, the following is brought down from Rav Soloveitchik’s 1976 Teshuvah drasha:

My religious world-view was formed not only through learning Torah, but also by me religious experience…I continually refer to the the two traditions of Torah learning — halakhah and that or religious life and feeling — the enthusiasm, the love of Hashem, the yearning for Hashem… The first is relatively easy to impart; I can give long lectures on shofar, the halakhot of teshuvah, the Avodah, etc. with great depth and thoroughness. Yet what is easy for me [to explain] regarding the first tradition is very difficult regarding the second tradition.

To recount what Jews of earlier generations–not only the Gedolei Yisrael, but Jews in general — experienced on the Yamim Nora’im — the yearning, the nostalgia that overtook one’s entire being — to impart the emotion is almost impossible. As a child, I remember how infectious that emotion was: I felt the same yearning as everyone else without really understanding what exactly I was yearning for. Those emotions which overtook me as a child stimulate me still today, and my whole Weltenschauung, my whole religious philosophy, is a result of this experience.

Contemporary Orthodoxy is well ground intellectually. In spite of this, however, its followers lack passion and enthusiasm. This deficiency is especially evident on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

How can a Jew pray on Yom Kippur and not feel the greatness, the fire and holiness of the day? How can I possible impart such an experience? Perhaps one can begin to awaken the ecstatic feeling by discussing the customs and laws which we observe on Yom Kippur. From within the allegedly dry confines of Jewish law, there is an awesome, warm, enormous world — there is a definite transition from Halakhah to service of Hashem. Perhaps through such a discussion, the audience will be awakened to the religious mood that a Jew must find himself on Yom Kippur.

Originally published in Sept 2007

Joy on Rosh Hashanah

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download some amazing Drashos on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

Awe and Joy on the Day of Judgment

Rosh HaShanah is the Yom HaDin (the day of judgment). Is there any heart that does not tremble from it? Just as a person is afraid when he stands in court, so is Rosh HaShanah a time of trepidation, where we stand before the King of all kings. There is a natural fear that all people have of the judgment of Rosh HaShanah, each person on his own level.

But on the other hand, Rosh HaShanah is also described as a joyous time. It is written, “Eat from the fattest foods and drink sweet beverages…and do not be sad, for the joy of Hashem is their splendor.”[1]There is a mitzvah to eat, drink, and be joyous, on Rosh HaShanah. Some opinions even forbid fasting on Rosh HaShanah, because it is a time of joy.

What is the joy that takes place on Rosh HaShanah? The fear of Rosh HaShanah we are all familiar with. We know it is the time where people are judged, where life and death is decided; naturally there is a fear on this day. But it is hard to understand why Rosh HaShanah is also a joyous time. What is this happiness all about?

Joy: When Sin Is Removed

It is well-known that the Arizal said that he mainly reached his high levels of comprehension through simcha (joy). Let us think into this.

The simple-known reason of the Arizal’s success is because he intensely desired the Torah and he was aware of its value. It is certainly true that he valued the Torah very much, and that he appreciated holiness. The Arizal found joy in the Torah, before he became the Arizal. Now that we have his writings, it became easier for us to find joy in the Torah, but the Arizal found joy in the Torah way before he composed his writings, through his exertion in Torah and in doing the mitzvos. The joy he had from Torah and mitzvos enabled him to reach all of his great revelations.

This is the simple understanding of how the Arizal found his great joy. There is also a deeper reason, though.

It is written, “G-d created man upright, but they seek many calculations.”[2] Originally, man was yoshor (upright), and after Adam’s sin, man fell from the state of yoshor into the state of seeking “many calculations”: all kinds of rationalizations that lead to sin.

Why does man become sad? The word for “sadness” in Hebrew is “etzev”, from the word atzavim, “images”, a term for idol worship. Had Adam HaRishon never sinned, no one else who came after him would have been enabled to sin; there would be no sins in the world. There would be no idol worship in the world; every sin is a degree of idol worship. If we would live in a world in which there is no sin, there would be no sadness.

Sadness happens because the soul deep down is in pain that it has sinned. It is pained that it has become distanced from her Creator. (This is at the root of the matter. When we analyze the branch of the matter, it is because the body enables sadness, for the body is created from the element of earth, which is the root of sadness).

When a person is found living with Hashem, there is “Splendor and joy in His place.”[3] There is no place for sadness in Hashem’s abode. “One cannot come to the king in sackcloth” – this is not just because it is a dishonor to the king to come in sackcloth, but because the palace of the king is a place of joy, and sackcloth is a connotation of pain and sadness, the antithesis of joy.

A person can only be sad when he becomes distanced from the Creator. When a person sins, this causes “timtum halev” (blockage of the heart); there is distance between man and his Creator, and then there is sadness.

It seems to a person that he is sad because he has financial issues, or because he has a problem when it comes to raising his children or a problem with shidduchim. But the deep reason of why sadness appears is because of a person’s sins. The sins create a distance between the person and Hashem. A person’s sins might make their appearance in the form of problems with children or with shidduchim, but those things are just the garments that are covering over the real issue. Those problems are not the root of the sadness.

The true joy that a person can know of in his life is: to reach a situation in which he is cleansed from sin. This is when one purifies himself from sins, through doing true teshuvah. The Rambam says that the teshuvah must be on the level in which Hashem testifies on the person that he would never commit the sin again.[4] When one does genuine teshuvah, he becomes happy.

Of Motzei Yom Kippur, it is said, “Go eat your bread happily…for G-d is already satisfied with your deeds.” When one’s sins have become erased, he can then go eat his bread happily. The joy is not simply because his sins have been forgiven; that is also a reason to rejoice, but the depth of the joy is because it is sin that causes sadness, and now that the sins have been removed, there is no place for sadness in the person. When sins are removed, a person naturally finds himself happy, for the soul is connected to the Creator, and this is a natural joy of the soul, where it delights in its very bond with the Almighty.

The Arizal was thus joyous when he learned Torah, because he purified himself from any sins, so that he would be able to learn Torah with proper fervor and awe; together with his exertion in learning. This brought him to joy, and from this joy, he reached awesome levels of comprehension.

Joy comes from returning to our pure state, where we are cleansed from sin. When a person tries to get his happiness from external factors, it can only be temporary happiness, and it is minimal. True joy is only when a person removes from himself the reason that is responsible for all sadness in the soul – sin.

The Joy on Rosh HaShanah – Passing Before The King

This also helps us understand the joy that is present on Rosh HaShanah. Although Rosh HaShanah is the Yom HaDin, it is also a day of simcha (joy). The reason to be happy on Rosh HaShanah is because it is the day where “All in the world pass before Him, like sheep of a flock.” It is one day of the year where each person is granted a ‘ticket’ to enter before Him.

Throughout the rest of the year, only tzaddikim have access to Hashem’s palace that is opened to them. (They feel Hashem simply at all times. This is the meaning of the 36 tzaddikim who greet the Shechinah each day – to receive the Shechinah is to palpably sense Hashem). A regular person cannot enter into that ‘place’ during the rest of the year. But there is one day a year where all people are given the right to enter before the King of the world: Rosh HaShanah. On this day, there is no one who cannot come before the King of all Kings. When one merits to be with the King of all Kings and to be close to Him, he is filled with joy.

The joy on Rosh HaShanah is thus not to be happy over the fact that it is Yom HaDin (although from a deeper perspective, there is also a concept of having joy in the concept of the Yom HaDin; but we won’t discuss this). The Yom HaDin evokes fear, not joy. Which part of Rosh HaShanah evokes joy? The fact that it is a day of great closeness with Hashem. When a person is close to Hashem – there is “Splendor and joy in His place.”

Thus, the reason to be joyous on Rosh HaShanah is, because a person is passing before the King of the world.

Preparing For Rosh HaShanah With Both Fear and Joy

If a person never thinks on Rosh HaShanah that it is the day where we are guaranteed to pass in such close proximity before Hashem, he is missing the joy of this day. One must therefore prepare before Rosh HaShanah, on two different levels. Firstly, one must reflect on how it is the yom hadin, where all people will be judged for every single action; the more a person has purified his heart, the more he will have a sense of fear. Secondly, one must realize that it is the day where we declare Hashem as king – and all people are granted the right to enter before Him.

Hashem is scrutinizing each person on Rosh HaShanah, and there is no one who goes unnoticed. The simple understanding of this is that it refers to the judgment. But the deeper meaning of it is that Hashem counts each person lovingly, like a father who loves to see his children, like a king who enjoys seeing his people. There is a desire from Hashem, so to speak, to see each of His children, and that is why each person is scrutinized before Him.

There is no day where we are so guaranteed to feel close to Hashem as on Rosh HaShanah! If a person only prepared for Rosh HaShanah with a sense of dread of the Yom HaDin, but he is not aware of the joy of this day, he might merit a good judgment, but he will be missing the point of this day: the fact that Hashem is more fully revealed, in the minds and hearts, of all of us.

Four Words that Fuel Spiritual Growth

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains that the key to establishing a palpable closeness to G-d when we say the Shemoneh Esrai, are the words Melekh (King), Ozer (Helper), uMoshia (Rescuer), uMogen (Shield) in the first brocha. We start off addressing G-d as a majestic but somewhat distant King. A Helper is more available and closer than a King, like a friend who we know we can call on. A Rescuer is closer than a Helper, because he is right there to save us when we need help. A Shield is closer than a Rescuer because he is surrounding us, protecting us from harm. If we say these four words slowly (4+ seconds per word), focusing on the different perceptions of closeness, we can sense Hashem’s protection.

This four word progression is also applicable to the Yomim Noraim. On Rosh Hoshana we focus on Hashem as King. In the ten days of Teshuva, we call out more in Selichos to Hashem, our Rescuer, because He is more available in this period. On Yom Kippur, we pray and confess to Hashem, our Saviour, as He saves us from the consequences of our sins. On Succos, we focus on Hashem, our Shield, through the mitzvos of the Sukkah and the feelings of protection that it generates.

The idea of the progression from King, to Helper, to Rescuer, to Shield, might help explain a question regarding brochos. Every standalone or sequence-beginning brocha must contain Hashem’s name and the word Melekh. However, the beginning of Shomeneh Esrai is missing the Melekh. Tosfos gives the most quoted answer: the first Brocha mentions Avrahom, who was the first one who made Hashem King over himself. The question still remains: why not just put the word Melekh, like we find in every other brocha?

Perhaps we can say that the word Melekh by itself represents a distant King. However in Shomeneh Esrai we are talking directly to Hashem, To help us create that conversational closeness, the Men of the Great Assembly, put the word Melekh at the end of the brocha in the progression leading to Magen. This is the relationship Avrahom personified, and that is the relationship we are pursuing in the first brocha and in the entire Shomoneh Esrai.

May we all merit to make the progression from Melekh to Magen in these upcoming Yomim Noraim, and in every tefillah that we daven.

Rav Itamar Shwartz (Bilvavi) on Pondering The Meaning Of Life

Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the Bilvavi and the Getting to Know Yourself (Soul, Emotions, Home) seforim has a free download available of Elul Talks here.

Hashem Helps Us When We Connect Our Actions With Him

ומגן ומושיע עוזר מלך Hashem is our עוזר ,our ultimate Helper.
Hashem is our true Helper. When a person helps another, the one receiving the help is considered the main person. But when Hashem helps us, we realize that Hashem is the main one, and we are just secondary. As it is written, “My help comes from Hashem.”.

Chazal say that our evil inclination gets stronger every day, and if not for Hashem, we cannot overcome it (Sukkah 52a). On a deeper note, our every action needs Hashem’s help. How indeed does Hashem help us?

Whenever we do an action, it is considered alive only if we put Hashem into the equation. Although we use our power of bechirah to do good actions, our actions can only be considered ‘alive’ when we realize how we need Hashem to help us, and this gives life to the actions we do. A person might do many good deeds, but inwardly, he can be dead, because there is no life-source to his actions; Hashem is missing from the equation. Once we put Hashem into what we do, Hashem isproviding life to our actions, and then the actions we do are alive.

Life Vs. Imagination

A person needs to live an inner kind of life, in which all that he does is inwardly connected to Hashem.

We must know what it means to really live life, and what it means to merely imagine what a good life is – to see the differentiation between these two. To illustrate, a child plays a game and is having a good time; he thinks that this is his life. As he begins to get older, he realizes that all his fun was the world of imagination, and that this is not life.

The life which we see in front of us, on this world, is all a world of imagination! In order to really know what our life is, we have to merit from Hashem that He open our hearts to understand what it really is. If our heart hasn’t been opened a little, we do not understand what “life” is at all. We might know what death is, but we won’t know what “life” is.

Our existence is that we are a soul clothed by a body. Therefore, we initially perceive life from the perspective of our body, even if we learn Torah and mitzvos; from the perspective of the body, we have an erroneous perception of what life is about. We have to daven to Hashem that He should open our heart (as we daven in the end of Shemoneh Esrei, “Open my heart to Your Torah”) in order to understand what life really is.

We should look back at out past and see that whatever we thought until now as “life” is not really life, just imagination. Most people are not experiencing the true meaning of life, even if they live for 70 or 80 years. People often do not even experience one moment of true life on this world!

Our neshamah in us knows what real life is. Even when we ask Hashem for life, we do not always know what it is. The meaning of life is really a secret; only our neshamah knows what it is. Sometimes we receive sparks of understanding of what the meaning of life is. But to actually arrive at a total recognition of what life is, we need to have our hearts opened.

During Elul, what are people asking Hashem for? People have all kinds of things they want and ask Hashem for a whole list of things. The more a person asks for various things, the more it shows that he doesn’t understand what life is. We are all asking Hashem for life! In Shemoneh Esrei of Rosh HaShanah, we daven Zochreinu L’Chaim, Melech Chofetz B’Chaim, Kosveinu B’Sefer HaChaim…we keep asking for life, because that is really our central request in Elul. As for our personal requests that we ask of Hashem, most of these requests are not for life itself, but rather about various details that branch out from our life, such as parnassah, etc. The main request which we ask for in Shemoneh Esrei is that we should have life!

Since we are young, we think that we know we are alive. But the truth is that most people don’t even realize what it means to really be alive! People ask Hashem that they be granted life only because they don’t want to die. But as for life itself, to know what it means to be alive – people often do not know what it is. We don’t want Hashem to take away our life, as we daven in the prayer of Shema Koleinu. But what is our life to begin with? What is the life that we are asking for more of? Do we realize the true meaning of what it means to be alive…?

If our hearts begin to become a little opened, we can realize that the kind of life we think we have been living until now is really the world of imagination. Compare this to a child. A child’s perspective on life is not life – it is imagination.

It is hard to verbally express this concept in words. The point is that your heart needs to become opened, and then you will know what is being discussed here.

In Elul, we ask for life. We must realize that this world we see in front of us is all imagination! Ever since Adam ate from the Eitz HaDaas, this world became like one big imaginary kind of existence. This is the depth behind the curse of “death” that came to the world – it was a “death” to the ideal state of mankind. So when we ask for life in Elul, the depth of our request is that we are asking Hashem that we be granted the power to leave our imagination, and instead taste of the true life – the Eitz HaChaim, the source of true life.

It is not only a person who is immersed in physical interests who is living in imagination. Even a person learning Torah and doing mitzvos, who is not entrenched in physical pursuit, can also be living in imagination. We see from this from the fact that we have all kinds of dreams at night.

When we reveal the inner essence of our heart, we will then understand what the true meaning of life is, and then we will be able to truly have d’veykus with the Creator.

Led Zeppelin & Frum Culture

As a BT, I’ve often felt the clash between the culture I grew up in and the “frum” culture I’ve been living in for so long. One of the areas the clash always made itself evident to me was music. I just never could get into “Jewish music.”

This clash took on new meaning for me years ago when I worked as a manager in a small business that employed Chassidic girls, who loved to listen to music as they did their tasks. One girl, in particular, was really into it. She sometimes asked my opinion of the latest song or album. I tried to feign interest, but Jewish music – especially the type these girls liked – really never did anything for me.

One day she excitedly brought in the newest album and played it. I had to admit, at first, that there was something I liked about one of the songs. It had… a certain….

I couldn’t put my finger on it. But it had a quality that resonated for me. And as I listened to it over the next few hours — she played the album again and again — all of a sudden it struck me:

It was “Stairway to Heaven,” by Led Zeppelin, regurgitated in instrumental form without lyrics.

I don’t have to tell most readers here that Led Zeppelin was a famous hard rock band in the ‘70s. Their concerts were drug and alcohol fests; their music hard-driving heavy metal, their lyrics raunchy. In other words, everything a red-blooded American teenager with a rebellious streak ever wanted.

And everything one would have thought a Chassid, in the real sense of the word, would recoil from. Yet, here were these Chassidic girls really into it.

Of course, they had no idea of the context or the words. Moreover, even if they did, there wasn’t necessarily anything wrong with the denuded elevator music version of the song. Chassidic philosophy, in particular, emphasizes the idea that there are sparks of kedusha all around embedded in the tumah waiting for a Jew to come and extract it. Some of the most inspiring Shabbos niggunim were originally Czarist army marching songs. We are here to convert the matter of the lower world into the currency of the higher world.

Still… Led Zeppelin?

One of the lessons this drove home for me was that if I had any reason to feel inferior because of my cultural upbringing I was a fool. If sparks of kedusha could be had in Led Zeppelin, then the sound tracks of my memory banks were gold mines of potential kedusha no Chassid could hope to duplicate.

But the larger point was the place of culture clash in the evolution of a BT. There is, of course, a difference between real Torah and a culture in which this Torah is expressed. They are not necessarily the same thing. Moshe Rabbeinu did not speak Yiddish or wear a streimel (notwithstanding the Parasha sheets our kids bring home from yeshiva).

Yet, the reality is that when we become observant we not only join a religion but perforce join one of the cultures within it, be it Modern Orthodox, Chassidic or whatever. Judaism is a social religion; it demands we become part of a tzibbur, a kehilla, a community. Therefore, we must make our peace with a community, even if it is lacking or imperfect in our eyes.

And so, we BTs more than others, go about our lives in strange paradox, feeling alienated from the culture we left behind for a religion that makes sense but invariably comes with a culture we may not fit perfectly into.

Somehow we have to find a niche not necessarily made in our image without losing our selves. We have to navigate the choppy seas of a culture sometimes at odds with our memories, origins and expectations while remaining glued to the inner compass that led us to the timeless values underpinning that culture to begin with.

Some of the cultural dissonance is relatively easy to handle but some is not. Often there is no easy solution for the latter – other than recognizing that our task here is not always easy.

That’s a lesson we learned long before we came to Torah. You can’t buy a stairway to heaven.

Originally published March 15, 2006

Crying From Within on Tisha BAv

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on the Three Weeks and Tisha B’Ave

Who Is The Redemption About?

At the end of the first berachah of Shemoneh Esrei, we say, למען שמו באהבה, “l’maan Shemo b’ahavah” (For the sake of His Name, with love).

We await the redemption, but besides for this, we await the kind of redemption which is “for the sake of His Name”. Rather than simply bringing the redemption simply for the sake of His children, Hashem will bring the redemption is “for the sake of His Name, with love.”

A Seeming Contradiction

The Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av is a time where we are supposed to feel pain and mourning over the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. Yet, we also look forward to the redemption. This seems like a contradiction in our Avodas Hashem. How do we integrate these two seemingly contrary feelings – joy due to hope for the future geulah (redemption), but also sadness at the current state of exile, the galus?

Personal Suffering vs. National Suffering

It is natural for humans to want to escape pain. We are creatures of comfort and long to be redeemed from any uncomfortable or painful situations. However, escaping pain is not the purpose of the Redemption. Rather, the purpose of the Redemption will be “for Hashem’s sake”, as we say in Shemoneh Esrei – “l’maan shemo b’ahavah” ,“For the sake of His Name, with love.”

The sole purpose of the Redemption is to reveal Hashem’s name in the world, which is the purpose of Creation.[1] [Thus, we must long for the Redemption not to end our personal suffering but rather to achieve the whole purpose of Creation, for His Shechinah to be able to rest in this World.]

The Root of Exile

What does the passuk mean when it refers to the Redemption being for the sake of the “Name” of Hashem?

A name reveals the nature of something. In the gentile world, a name is meaningless [it is merely an arbitrary string of letters attached to things to enable people to communicate]. Similarly, the name of a gentile does not define his essence. However, in contrast, Jewish names reveal their essence. The names of people and things are intricately woven into their essential nature. Thus, the “Name” of Hashem when it is revealed in the future will reveal Hashem in the world.

Thus, since the entire purpose of Creation is to reveal Hashem in the world, the Redemption will be in His name’s sake. The word for exile in Hebrew is “galus”. The Hebrew word for redemption is “geulah”. Both these words are rooted in the Hebrew word “giluy”, meaning “to reveal”. This hints to the fact that both the exile and the redemption will reveal Hashem.[2]

Exile is essentially Hashem’s concealment of His radiance toward us (otherwise known as “hester panim”).[3] In other words, our current exile is synonymous with the revelation of Hashem concealed from our minds and hearts. In contrast, the redemption will reveal Hashem in our minds and hearts. It will be the time in which we will exclaim, “This is my G-d, and I will glorify Him”, and when all the nations of the world will exclaim, “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu” (Hear, Yisrael, that Hashem is our G-d).

Needless to say, the four periods of exile that the Jewish people have endured (the fourth of which we are still currently enduring) have been rife with suffering and tragedy. However, the sufferings of the exiles are just the external branches. The root of the exile is the hester panim. The fact that Hashem has concealed His radiance from us – that is the true exile.

Chazal state that wherever the nation of Israel is exiled, the Shechinah (Hashem’s Presence) is exiled as well. However, it is important to note that the exile only occurs because the Shechinah has gone into exile. The exile ends when the Shechinah returns and Hashem is again revealed to us.

In other words, all of the exiles – from Egypt until the present exile, which is Edom (Rome and all the nations that have branched out from it) together with Yishmael (the Arab nations) – are merely representative of the true underlying cause of the exile – the absence of Hashem’s radiance toward us.

Why Are We Crying?

Of course, during this time of mourning, we have to think about the suffering of the Jewish people. However, it is important to remember that the suffering and tragedies are not the original cause of our situation but rather the result of our situation. The cause or root of the problem, the root of all the exiles, is hester panim. Without being aware of this, a person just has the “branches” [the consequential effect] without the “root” [original cause].

In summary, there are two layers to our mourning. There is the external layer, crying, which concerns the suffering we experience during our exile. However, these tears are really sourced in the internal, root cause of our sadness – the hester panim.

What Do We Really Want?

In the words ”le’maan Shemo b’ahavah’ of Shemoneh Esrei, why we do we also say the word b’ahavah (“with love”), and not simply l’maan “Shemo” (“for the sake of His Name”)?

[In order to understand this, it is useful to explore the meaning and source of the Hebrew word “ahavah.”] The Hebrew word for father is av, which is rooted in the word ahavah, love. Ahavah also means ratzon, to “want”.[6] This alludes to our Avos (forefathers), who wanted the true ratzon (will) – the desire to do Hashem’s will: “It is our will to do Your will.”

Thus, the ahavah of “l’maan Shemo b’ahavah”, concerns the love that comes from the revelation of our very deepest ratzon. There are other kinds of ahavah, love – including ahavah rabbah (“great love”) and ahavas olam (“eternal” love). However, the love expressed in the words “l’eman Shemo b’ahavah” is greater than both of these. It is a love that comes when the true ratzon, the will of Hashem, is revealed. It is a revelation of “retzoneinu laasos Retzoncha” – “Our will to do Your will.”[7]

Exile thus represents a state whereby we have not achieved this greatest love, where our will is not to do Hashem’s will.There is no revelation of “retzonenu laasos Retzoncha” in exile. Admittedly, even in exile there can still be a revelation of the desire to see Hashem, for “It is our desire to see Our King” (“retzonenu liros es Malkeinu”.)[8] [In other words, we ‘want to want’ to do Hashem’s will. But we have not achieved the level of actually wanting it and incorporating our will into His will.]

Another way of understanding this distinction is to consider the prayer [which we recite later in Shemoneh Esrei], of לישועתך קוינו כל היום, “For Your salvation we await, every day.” This salvation is the true redemption. However, we obviously do not fully have sufficient ratzon for Hashem to save us, otherwise the redemption would have already come. Unfortunately, our ratzon itself is in exile! Our true internal, higher soul and its desires remain hidden from us. And as we explained above, since ratzon forms the basis of this greatest love, the absence of ratzon is the absence of the love.

How To Reach The Real Crying

To truly have pain over the exile, we have to first fire up our ratzon to truly want the redemption. Only when we have uncovered and fired up our true, inner desire for redemption will we truly feel pain over the exile, that we have not yet obtained what our hearts’ desire. This weeping can only be achieved when a person recognizes within himself of what he is truly missing and how discontent we truly are. This realization will bring us to true tears, not just fleeting moments of emotion.

The following scenario may assist us to understand this better, demonstrating how the greater the ahavah, the greater the ratzon and emotion involved with this person.

This is also true of feeling the pain over the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and the current exile. We do not necessarily feel the pain (and thereby achieve the avodah of the Three Weeks/Nine Days) without work. How, indeed, can we reach this inner source of the crying?

We have to focus on our true ratzon. What do we truly want? Learning Torah and doing the mitzvos only shows what we want on the outside. What do we truly want on the inside? What is a person’s true ratzon in life…?

Hashem will bring the Redemption “for the sake of His Name, with love.” He has a will (ratzon) as well as a love (ahavah) for us. The more we strive to connect ourselves to these middos of Hashem (of ratzon and ahavah), more we reveal our ratzon for the redemption, and the closer we will be to our salvation from this exile.

The Avodah of Tisha B’Av

What is the practical avodah we need to do on Tisha B’Av (I would instead say: What, practically speaking, is the avodah we need to do on Tisha B’Av?)?

Fasting and being forbidden to learn Torah make Tisha B’Av difficult to endure on the outside. To inspire themselves to reach a point of mourning, many people read different statements of Chazal in the Gemara about the destruction or listen to inspiring lectures. However, such mourning is simply an external sadness and pain.

In order to reach a true, inner pain, we must consider and reflect on what the destruction truly represents– the fact that we no longer have the Shechinah is because we do not have the ratzon to bring it here!

This is what we truly have to mourn about on Tisha B’Av. The destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, the many tragedies that took place then, the suffering of all the exiles – these are just the external layer of the destruction. It is the destruction to our soul, and to our soul’s true ratzon to reveal Hashem into the world, that we should really be crying about.

[1] As explained at length by Ramchal in sefer Daas Tevunos

[2] Maharal (Netzach Yisrael: 1)

[3] Ramchal (sefer Daas Tevunos)

[6] Siddur Nusach Arizal, Tefillas Shacharis Shabbos, “b’ahavah u’bratzon”; Kedushas Levi Tehillim 69:14

[7] Berachos 17a

[8] Rashi Shemos 19:9

SGZ Vol10 – Our Avodah without the Beis HaMikdash

The Avodah of Making Better Brochos

We’ve been discussing how to make better brochos by:
– internalizing that our purpose in life is to get closer to Hashem
– stopping before we say the brocha and realizing that we have an opportunity to get closer to Hashem
– thinking and focusing on the fact that Hashem is the Master of All when saying His Name
– acting and appreciating this realized opportunity of getting closer to Hashem

The Path to Improving Our Avodah

These ideas are included in the first three foundations of the Mesillas Yesharim which are:

Chovas HaAdam (Man’s Duty in the World)
-Pursuing the greatest pleasure of connecting to Hashem through proper mitzvos performance
-Internalize and Focus on your Purpose

Zehirus (Watchfulness)
-Avoiding a distracted life by focusing on our purpose of connecting to Hashem and watching that our actions are in line with our purpose
-Stop, Think, Act, Review

Zerizus (Zealousness)
-Overcoming our natural laziness and making enthusiastic performance of mitzvos our top priority
-Do Mitzvos with Enthusiasm

Mourning the Missing of Avodah of the Beis HaMikdash

We’re now in the period of the nine days, and the call of this period day is to mourn the loss of the Beis HaMikdash. We mourn because we are lacking the close connection to Hashem that existed when we had the Beis HaMikdash. That connection was built through the avodah that was available through the bringing of korbonos, which we no longer have.

Availing Ourselves of the Opportunity of Avodah She’b’lev

We don’t have the avodah of the Beis Hamikdash, but we do have the Avodah She’b’lev, namely Tefillah. If we work on improving our brochos, even a little bit, as described above, we’re showing Hashem that we value our opportunities to serve Him.

Getting Joy from Our Avodah

We are taught in the Tochacha that bad things happened to the Jewish People because we did not serve Hashem with joy. When we stop, think and say a brocha properly, we can feel joy from this realized opportunity of serving and getting closer to Hashem. That is a step in rectifying our past of not serving Hashem with joy.

Better Avodah Leads to More Avodah Opportunities

In our own lives, we often see that improving our avodah leads to more avodah opportunities. It’s logical, that a significant collective improvement of our Avodah, will be met by Hashem bringing back the Avodah opportunities of the Beis HaMikdash. May it happen speedily in our days.

SGZ – V9 – The Three Foundations

Last week we talked about how to make better brochos by:
– internalizing that our purpose in life is to get closer to Hashem
– stopping before we say the brocha and realizing that we have an opportunity to get closer to Hashem
– thinking and focusing on the fact that Hashem is the Master of All when saying His Name
– acting and appreciating this realized opportunity of getting closer to Hashem

These ideas are included in the first three foundations of the Mesillas Yesharim which are:
– Chovas HaAdam (Man’s Duty in the World) – Pursuing the greatest pleasure of connecting to Hashem through proper mitzvos performance
– Zehirus (Watchfulness) – Avoiding a distracted life by focusing on our purpose of connecting to Hashem and watching that our actions are in line with our purpose
– Zerizus (Zealousness) – Overcoming our natural laziness and making enthusiastic performance of mitzvos our top priority

Chovas HaAdam – Internalize Your Purpose
Proper Divine Service begins with internalizing our purpose in the world. Why are we here? It starts with why. In the secular world, this concept relates to our discovering our individual purpose. In the Mesillas Yesharim, the Ramchal is focused on the common purpose we all share, which is to develop a deep connection to Hashem in this world, through the performance of mitzvos. That is our why, our purpose, and the more we internalize it, the more we’ll be driven by it.
– At least once a day, say to yourself “My purpose in this world us to develop a deep connection to Hashem through the performance of Mitzvos”

Zehirus – Stop, Think, Act, Review
Zehirus is internalizing the habit of thinking before you act. We are often distracted and don’t think about our actions. The first step is to stop before you act. The purpose of stopping is to think about what you are about to determine if it is in line with your purpose in life. If what you are about to do is an aveira, then try not to do it. If what you’re about to do is a mitzvah, then do it, with the thought that this act will help me achieve my purpose. The next step is doing the act with the proper thoughts. The last step is to review and think about the actions at least once a day. This helps to internalize the habit of zehirus.
– At least once a day, think about whether your actions were in line with your purpose.

Zerizus – Do it with Enthusiasm
Zerizus is internalizing the habit of doing mitzvos enthusiastically. The nemesis of enthusiasm is lethargy and laziness, which is a result of our physical nature. The first step is stopping and thinking before we act, which are the components of zehirus. Now we can think about the fact that the mitzvah we are about to do is in line with our purpose of connecting to Hashem. What could be better? Now we can proceed to do the mitzvah with increased enthusiasm, as it is integral to fulfilling our purpose.
– At least once a day, think about the importance of the brocha you are about to say, and then say it with some enthusiasm.

SGZ – V8 – Applying Our Spiritual Knowledge to Improve Our Davening



Last week we looked at three aspects of spiritual growth: inspiration, information, internalization. In regards to inspiration, or motivation, we spoke about our need to improve our Divine Service, and the fact that we don’t understand Divine Service so well. In regards to information, we reviewed the five components of Divine Service: Awe, Walking in His Way, Love, Wholehearted Service, Careful Performance of Mitzvos. We said that internalization is often the missing component in our spiritual growth.

The Mesillas Yesharim tells us that only acquiring awe of Hashem is considered the ultimate wisdom to be acquired and attained. Internalizing awe of Hashem is the key to wisdom. What is wisdom? Wisdom is the relevant application of knowledge to a situation. The ultimate wisdom is determining and doing what Hashem wants from us in every situation. This requires learning halacha, hashkafa, mussar and applying it. The only way we can apply the information is if it’s internalized and accessible.

Internalizing Divine Service requires a step by step repetitive process. In the Zoomcast we look at the step by step process of improving our davening. We discuss the following steps:
1) Internalizing that our purpose in life is to get closer to Hashem.
2) Stopping before we say the brocha and realizing that we have an opportunity to get closer to Hashem.
3) Focusing on thinking that Hashem is the Master of All when saying His Name.
4) Appreciating this realized opportunity of getting closer to Hashem.

Spiritual Growth Zoomcast V7 – Inspiration, Information, Internalization

Here’s the accompanying post:

We are so fortunate in these difficult times to have so many inspirational speakers helping us use our situation to grow. Go to TorahAnytime.com on any given day and you will find 10-20 new inspirational shiurim. Inspiration provides us with the important motivation, but we need more.

In addition to the inspiration, we need information. Let’s say we want to improve or kavanna when we daven and say brochos. How do we go about it? What are the steps that will lead to a permanent improvement? Let’s say we start small, and commit to thinking that Hashem is the “Master of All”, as the Shulchan Aruch says, when we say His Name in the first brocha of Shemoneh Esrai.

The third crucial component is internalization. We have to take the information and implement it until it becomes second nature. It starts with doing it the first time and then again and again and again, until it’s internalized. It’s useful to review each day whether we were successful with our commitment, to aid in the internalization process.

One of the reasons for the popularity of the Mesillas Yesharim is that not only does the Ramchal give us the inspiration to improve our Divine Service, but he also gives us the step by step information on how to improve. In addition, the Ramchal describes important tools for internalization, such as repeated review of the sefer and a daily cheshbon hanefesh.

Below is an outline of the introduction to the Mesillas Yesharim to help illustrate the importance of inspiration, information and internalization. In this week’s Spiritual Growth Zoomcast, we talk about the inspiration, information and internalization process.

Introduction to the Mesillas Yesharim

We need to study about Divine Service

00.01 Forgetfulness is prevalent in that which is well known.
00.02 We need to review and study those things which we tend to forget.
00.03 People devote much time to studying secular subjects and Tanach and Halacha.
00.04 Few people spend time studying how to perfect their service of Hashem.

Divine Service is misunderstood

00.05 People don’t spend time on this because it seems so obvious.
00.06 Most people have misconceptions of what service of Hashem entails.
00.07 Desirable service is misunderstood because we don’t think about it or act on the opportunities for such service.

Proper Divine Service needs work to achieve

00.08 Aspects of service, like love and fear of Hashem, and purity of heart are not natural states so we need to work to acquire them.
00.09 There are many deterrents to desirable service, but they can be overcome.

Inadequate Divine Serice is not acceptable

00.10 Lackadaisical service of Hashem is unacceptable.
00.11 We can not justify inadequate service because that is the essence of what Hashem asks of us.
00.12 If we don’t put in effort, we will certainly not achieve adequate levels of service.
00.13 To understand service of Hashem we must pursue its understanding, like we would pursue a treasure.

Defining the Components of Divine Service

00.14 Only acquiring awe of Hashem is considered the ultimate wisdom to be acquired and attained.
00.15 Hashem wants: 1) awe of Hashem 2) walking in His ways 3) love of Hashem 4) wholehearted service 5) observance of all mitzvos.
00.16 We should be in awe of Hashem as we would a great and mighty king.
00.17 Walking in His ways is improving our character traits and doing things that strengthen Torah and achieve societal harmony.
00.18 We should love Hashem and try to please Him as we would try to please a parent.
00.19 Wholehearted service is focused solely on Hashem, not mechanical, and with complete devotion.
00.20 We should observe all the mitzvos with all their fine points and conditions.

The order necessary to internalize the above traits

00.21 Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair taught the order necessary to fully internalize the above traits.
00.22 The order is Torah, Watchfulness, Zeal, Cleanliness, Separation, Purity, Saintliness, Humility, Fear of Sin, Holiness, Divine Inspiration, Revival of the Dead

Inspiration, Information and Internalization

We are so fortunate in these difficult times to have so many inspirational speakers helping us use our situation to grow. Go to TorahAnytime.com on any given day and you will find 10-20 new inspirational shiurim. Inspiration provides us with the important motivation, but we need more.

In addition to the inspiration, we need information. Let’s say we want to improve or kavanna when we daven and say brochos. How do we go about it? What are the steps that will lead to a permanent improvement? Let’s say we start small, and commit to thinking that Hashem is the “Master of All”, as the Shulchan Aruch says, when we say His Name in the first brocha of Shemoneh Esrai.

The third crucial component is internalization. We have to take the information and implement it until it becomes second nature. It starts with doing it the first time and then again and again and again, until it’s internalized. It’s useful to review each day whether we were successful with our commitment, to aid in the internalization process.

One of the reasons for the popularity of the Mesillas Yesharim is that not only does the Ramchal give us the inspiration to improve our Divine Service, but he also gives us the step by step information on how to improve. In addition, the Ramchal describes important tools for internalization, such as repeated review of the sefer and a daily cheshbon hanefesh.

Below is an outline of the introduction to the Mesillas Yesharim to help illustrate the importance of inspiration, information and internalization. In this week’s Spiritual Growth Zoomcast on beyondbt.com, we will talk about the inspiration, information and internalization process.

Introduction to the Mesillas Yesharim

We need to study about Divine Service

00.01 Forgetfulness is prevalent in that which is well known.
00.02 We need to review and study those things which we tend to forget.
00.03 People devote much time to studying secular subjects and Tanach and Halacha.
00.04 Few people spend time studying how to perfect their service of Hashem.

Divine Service is misunderstood

00.05 People don’t spend time on this because it seems so obvious.
00.06 Most people have misconceptions of what service of Hashem entails.
00.07 Desirable service is misunderstood because we don’t think about it or act on the opportunities for such service.

Proper Divine Service needs work to achieve

00.08 Aspects of service, like love and fear of Hashem, and purity of heart are not natural states so we need to work to acquire them.
00.09 There are many deterrents to desirable service, but they can be overcome.

Inadequate Divine Serice is not acceptable

00.10 Lackadaisical service of Hashem is unacceptable.
00.11 We can not justify inadequate service because that is the essence of what Hashem asks of us.
00.12 If we don’t put in effort, we will certainly not achieve adequate levels of service.
00.13 To understand service of Hashem we must pursue its understanding, like we would pursue a treasure.

Defining the Components of Divine Service

00.14 Only acquiring awe of Hashem is considered the ultimate wisdom to be acquired and attained.
00.15 Hashem wants: 1) awe of Hashem 2) walking in His ways 3) love of Hashem 4) wholehearted service 5) observance of all mitzvos.
00.16 We should be in awe of Hashem as we would a great and mighty king.
00.17 Walking in His ways is improving our character traits and doing things that strengthen Torah and achieve societal harmony.
00.18 We should love Hashem and try to please Him as we would try to please a parent.
00.19 Wholehearted service is focused solely on Hashem, not mechanical, and with complete devotion.
00.20 We should observe all the mitzvos with all their fine points and conditions.

The order necessary to internalize the above traits

00.21 Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair taught the order necessary to fully internalize the above traits.
00.22 The order is Torah, Watchfulness, Zeal, Cleanliness, Separation, Purity, Saintliness, Humility, Fear of Sin, Holiness, Divine Inspiration, Revival of the Dead

Spiritual Growth Zoomcast V6 – The Importance of the Mesillas Yesharim Introduction

Check out the Spiritual Growth Zoomcast V6 – The Importance of the Mesillas Yesharim Introduction

Here is a summary of the Mesillas Yesharim Introduction:

00.01 Forgetfulness is prevalent in that which is well known.

00.02 We need to review and study those things which we tend to forget.

00.03 People devote much time to studying secular subjects and Tanach and Halacha.

00.04 Few people spend time studying how to perfect their service of Hashem.

00.05 People don’t spend time on this because it seems so obvious.

00.06 Most people have misconceptions of what service of Hashem entails.

00.07 Desirable service is misunderstood because we don’t think about it or act on the opportunities for such service.

00.08 Aspects of service, like love and fear of Hashem, and purity of heart are not natural states so we need to work to acquire them.

00.09 There are many deterrents to desirable service, but they can be overcome.

00.10 Lackadaisical service of Hashem is unacceptable.

00.11 We can not justify inadequate service because that is the essence of what Hashem asks of us.

00.12 If we don’t put in effort, we will certainly not achieve adequate levels of service.

00.13 To understand service of Hashem we must pursue its understanding, like we would pursue a treasure.

00.14 Only acquiring awe of Hashem is considered the ultimate wisdom to be acquired and attained.

00.15 Hashem wants: 1) awe of Hashem 2) walking in His ways 3) love of Hashem 4) wholehearted service 5) observance of all mitzvos.

00.16 We should be in awe of Hashem as we would a great and mighty king.

00.17 Walking in His ways is improving our character traits and doing things that strengthen Torah and achieve societal harmony.

00.18 We should love Hashem and try to please Him as we would try to please a parent.

00.19 Wholehearted service is focused solely on Hashem, not mechanical, and with complete devotion.

00.20 We should observe all the mitzvos with all their fine points and conditions.

00.21 Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair taught the order necessary to fully internalize the above traits.

00.22 The order is Torah, Watchfulness, Zeal, Cleanliness, Separation, Purity, Saintliness, Humility, Fear of Sin, Holiness, Divine Inspiration, Revival of the Dead.

Spiritual Growth Zoomcast V5 – The Ten Minute Mesillas Yesharim Overview

Check out the Spiritual Growth Zoomcast V5 – The Ten Minute Mesillas Yesharim Overview

Here is a summary of the Zoomcast:

What we need to do.
Introduction to the need to improve our Divine Service of fearing Hashem, walking in His ways, loving Him, serving Him wholeheartedly, and doing all the mitzvos.

The key point to internalize.
Chovas HaAdam or Man’s Purpose in the World is to pursue the greatest pleasure of connecting to Hashem through proper Divine service.

Four deterrents to deal will: distraction, laziness, desire, self-centeredness.

Reduce distraction with focused thinking.
Zehirus or Watchfulness is avoiding a distracted life by focusing on our purpose of connecting to Hashem and watching that our actions are in line with our purpose.

Reduce laziness with enthusiastic positive spiritual performance.
Zerizus or Zealousness is overcoming our natural laziness and making enthusiastic performance of mitzvos our top priority.

Battle desire and self-centeredness by focusing on spiritual achievement.
Nekiyus or Cleanliness is reducing our desire for the physical over the spiritual in order to eliminate rationalization and enable the careful avoidance of transgressions.

Weaken desire further by thinking about it’s deficiencies.
Perishus or Abstaining is recognizing the inferior nature of physical pleasures so we can abstain from unessential but permitted worldly matters.

Address self-centeredness by focusing more on our spiritual side.
Tahara or Purity is reducing our desire in physical acts and eliminating our improper motivations in mitzvos in order to serve Hashem wholeheartedly in purity.

Displace self-centeredness, by putting pleasing Hashem at the top of priorities.
Chassidus or Saintliness is expressing our love of Hashem by going beyond what is explicitly commanded in our performance of mitzvos.

Weaken self-centeredness further by examining our deficiencies.
Anavah or Humility is realizing that we have many faults and limited accomplishments and that we are unworthy of praise and honor and certainly not superior to others.

Putting Hashem front and center.
Yiras Cheit or Fear of Sin is being constantly aware of Hashem’s exaltedness and fearing any trace of transgression that would cause an affront to Hashem’s honor.

Doing everything for Hashem.
Kedushah or Holiness is removing ourselves from physicality and constantly cleaving to Hashem by doing every act for his sake.

Overview of Mesillas Yesharim

In the upcoming Zoomcast we’ll be giving a Overview of the Mesillas Yesharim. Here’s a preview.

Introduction – Improving our Divine service of fearing Hashem, walking in His ways, loving Him, serving Him wholeheartedly, and doing all the mitzvos.
It is critical to work on improving our service of Hashem, since this is the reason for our existence.Without effort and a methodology, we won’t reach adequate levels of service. Divine Service is doing mitzvos properly—with focus, love, and awe, and diminishing our self-centeredness through giving and connecting to other people.

Chovas HaAdam (Man’s Duty in the World) – Pursuing the greatest pleasure of connecting to Hashem through proper Divine service.
We build our foundation of improved service of Hashem by internalizing the understanding that our life’s purpose is to develop an eternal connection to Hashem. We develop that connection doing the mitzvos properly, serving Hashem, and withstanding tests.

Zehirus (Watchfulness) – Avoiding a distracted life by focusing on our purpose of connecting to Hashem and watching that our actions are in line with our purpose.
To reduce the distractions which distance us from Hashem, we have to develop the habit of thinking before we act whether a prospective action will draw us away from or bring us closer to Hashem. We need to regularly review our purpose and examine whether our daily actions are in line with our purpose.

Zerizus (Zealousness) – Overcoming our natural laziness and making enthusiastic performance of mitzvos our top priority.
To avail ourselves of the constant opportunities to come close to Hashem, we need to overcome our laziness which prevents us from enthusiastic mitzvah performance. We need to recognize the constant mitzvah opportunities, and then act without delay to take advantage of these opportunities to connect to Hashem.

Nekiyus (Cleanliness) – Reducing our desire for the physical over the spiritual in order to eliminate rationalization and enable the careful avoidance of transgressions.
We need to learn the details of mitzvah observance and proper middos, particularly the 14 mitzvos categories and 4 middos that we are most likely to transgress. We need to internalize the awareness that physical desire and self-centeredness often cause us to rationalize our transgressions.

Perishus (Abstaining) – Recognizing the inferior nature of physical pleasures so we can abstain from unessential but permitted worldly matters.
Perishus is the beginning of Chassidus and consists of abstaining from permitted worldly matters that are unessential or may lead to sin. However, if something is essential, it is a sin to abstain from it. Determining what is unessential and what is essential is an ongoing spiritual growth process.

Tahara (Purity) – Reducing our desire in physical acts and eliminating our improper motivations in mitzvos in order to serve Hashem wholeheartedly in purity.
Tahara refers to the refinement of our actions, emotions and thoughts. Tahara in physical acts is reducing our physical desires. Tahara in mitzvos refers to having proper intentions, which is called doing mitzvos l’shma or “for their own sake”.

Chassidus (Saintliness) – Expressing our love of Hashem by going beyond what is explicitly commanded in our performance of mitzvos.
Chassidus is bringing pleasure, honor and satisfaction to Hashem by adding to that which was explicitly commanded regarding mitzvos. Just like the love between people is expressed by doing more, so too is the love of Hashem. Chassidus teaches us to focus on helping people physically, financially and emotionally. In addition, all our mitzvos should be carried out with love, fear, concern for Hashem’s honor, and the intention of benefitting our entire generation.

Anavah (Humility) – Realizing that we have many faults and limited accomplishments and that we are unworthy of praise and honor and certainly not superior to others.
Humility of thought is to realize that we are not superior to others. Wisdom is the most common cause of conceit, even though we make errors and always need to learn. Humility in deeds means we should conduct ourselves humbly, accept insults, flee from honor and wielding authority..

Yiras Cheit (Fear of Sin) – Being constantly aware of Hashem’s exaltedness and fearing any trace of transgression that would cause an affront to Hashem’s honor.
Fear of punishment for violating Hashem’s mitzvos is the most basic fear and is a trait of Zehirus. Avoiding sins because of our awe of Hashem’s exaltedness is a trait of Chassidus. Yiras Cheit is the concern that a trace of sin intruded into any of our actions which caused an affront to the honor due to Hashem. When someone has reached this high level, this fear of sin operates constantly.

Kedushah (Holiness) – Removing ourselves from physicality and constantly cleaving to Hashem by doing every act for his sake.
Holiness is removing oneself from physicality and cleaving constantly to Hashem, with our every act done purely for His sake. This is achieved as a gift from Hashem after a person is constantly cleaving to Him through powerful love, intense fear and reflection on His exaltedness. Even ones physical deeds, like eating, will then be holy.

Going Beyond Bein Adam L’Makom

In our previous Zoomcasts we defined a G-d Centered spirituality emphasizing the goal of developing a deep loving emotional connection with G-d, and the resulting benefits of developing that relationship. This seems to focus on the Bein Adam L’Makom aspects of Torah Judaism. Surely that’s not all there is.

As the Mesillas Yesharim makes quite clear, middos and mitzvos Bein Adam L’Chaveiro, play an essential role in G-d centered spirituality. In regard to Middos, each of the ten steps of the Baraisa (Torah, Zehirus, Zerisus,…) is built on a foundation of eliminating bad middos and developing good middos. The Mesillas Yesharim however provides us with priorities in Middos Development.

In Zehirus, he focuses on the negative middah of distraction, which includes worldly pursuits, dreaming and fantasizing. The antidote is to think about your primary purpose and life, and to stop, and think, before you act, to see if your thoughts and actions are helping you achieve your purpose. When you work on the positive trait of thinking before you speak or act, you realize that this takes a concerted effort.

In Zerizus, he discusses the negative middah of laziness, which prevents us from doing positive mitzvos properly. The antidote here is doing mitzvos as soon as the opportunity presents itself, with enthusiasm. He also dicusses feeling the pleasure of Loving Hashem when doing the right thing. The negative middah of worry and anxiety is also addressed in Zerizus.

In Nekius, the negative middah of desire is discussed. The antidote begins with an awareness of how desire for physical pleasure, for honor and for money, influences our actions. The power of desire can be diminished by feeling the pleasure of doing the right thing. As Dr. David Lieberman says: “the body wants to feel good, the ego wants to look good, the soul wants to do good”. We have to feel the pleasure of doing good, to overcome the hold that that desire has on us.

At the end of Nekius he discusses the centrality of middos development in Avodah Hashem and how much effort must be made to improve our middos. The Ramchal teaches that there are numerous middos, but he focuses on the ones that create the greatest stumbling block, specifically arrogance, anger, envy and desire. The Vilna Gaon in Even Shleimah also teaches the centrality of middos development in Avodas Hashem, and he states that anger, desire and arrogance are the principal bad traits.

Let’s go back to the importance of the centrality of G-d connection in our Spiritual Growth. This, perhaps, is one of the major issues we have in the Frum community. We are not taught about the centrality and immense benefits of the emotional connection to G-d. Therefore, we often do mitzvos, say brachos, and pray without thought, and we don’t receive the pleasure which mitzvos, brachos and prayer can deliver.

I think a major reason for this is that when we begin our Judaism as a BT or a FFB the focus is on what to do and how to do it. At the beginning, we’re not focused on the benefits, or the why, which include the pleasurable emotional connection to Hashem. BTs are usually not ready for this at the beginning. And FFB children do not have enough emotional maturity to develop a deep emotional connection to Hashem at that point of their lives. That’s why we have to be thankful to Mesillas Yesharim for give us the step by step guidelines to develop that emotional connection and to get beyond our plateau.

Look out for the Spiritual Growth Zoomcast – volume 4, where we’ll discuss the above issues.

Rav Itamar Shwartz (Bilvavi) on Shavous and the Soul Perspective

Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the Bilvavi and the Getting to Know Yourself (Soul, Emotions, Home) seforim has a free download available of Shavous Talks here. Here are some short excerpts:

Three Kinds Of Love: For the Creator, For Torah, and For Another Jew.

With the help of Hashem, we are approaching the time of the giving of the Torah. When the Torah was given, there were three great revelations. The first revelation was that Hashem came down onto Har Sinai, and opened up all the heavens and showed us that Ain Od Milvado, there is nothing besides for Him. The second revelation was the Ten Commandments, which contains the entire Torah. The third revelation was that we all stood together with one heart.

The sefarim hakedoshim reveal that there are three kinds of love that we need to seek: love for Hashem, love for the Torah, and love for the Jewish people. These three kinds of love were all revealed at the giving of the Torah. Our love for the Creator was revealed when Hashem revealed Himself to us. Our love for the Torah was revealed through the Ten Commandments. Our love for the Jewish people was revealed when we had complete unity with each other, standing together with one heart.

Changing to a Soul Perspective
The choice that everyone has on this world is: If he will live life through his body, or through his
soul.

A person should ask himself how much physical gratification he’s getting, versus how much of his basic soul needs that he is getting. One should try thinking about this every day.

If anyone reflects, he’ll find that most of the day is spent on physical gratification – whether it’s coffee, smoking, food, newspapers, etc. Each to his own.
To begin to change this, one should try to make sure that he’s giving himself at least a little attention each day to his soul’s needs.

Today, pleasure is often only experienced sensually, with the physical. People often are completely devoid of experiencing any enjoyment whatsoever with regards to their souls. A person can start to change this by making sure to give his soul a little pleasure each day. This is just the beginning step.

When a person then feels a desire for something physical, such as for food – if he feels that he can give it up for something that is a soul need, he is making progress with this. It shows that he has begun to change his perspective at least a little.

Someone who does this and gets used to this will come to an amazing discovery. He will begin to actually feel others. He will feel other’s happiness when they make a simcha, and he will feel their sadness when they go through a loss. His soul will be able to feel the other’s soul.

Leaving The Body And Entering The Soul
When we heard the Torah at Har Sinai, our souls left us. In other words, we left the perspective of the body and entered the perspective of our soul!

This shows us that the way to prepare for the Torah – [at least] one of the ways – is to leave our body’s perspective and to instead enter into our soul a bit. This will resemble how the souls of the Jewish people left their bodies at Har Sinai.

May we be zoche to leave the thick materialism of this world and instead feel how we are a soul, beginning from the most basic needs of our soul [our emotional happiness], and then to the more spiritual needs of our soul, until we finally reach the highest part of our soul – the point of total d’veykus (attachment) with Hashem.

Is Developing a Deeper Connection to Hashem Worth the Effort?

As Torah observant Jews we all practice a form of G-d centered spirituality. We’re learning Torah, keeping Shabbos, Kashrus, Taharas HaMishpacha because G-d commanded us.

The next level of G-d centered spirituality is having a deep loving emotional connection to G-d as stated in the Rambam, Chovos HaLevovos, Chassidic sources and Mesillas Yesharim. That deep emotional loving connection can be the source of always-available pleasure in both this world and the next. Many of the above mentioned classic sources teach that developing a deep emotional connecting to Hashem requires a step by step methodology.

The push back to a growth methodology is that a person can argue that through Torah, Avodah and Gemillas Chasadim – they will, over time, develop that deep connection to Hashem. So what’s the problem? Many have had Rebbeim who have developed a deep connection and they never taught the need for a methodology.

Putting the methodology issue aside, what if I’m basically satisfied with my combination of physical and spiritual pleasure. Why should I put in all the effort for increased spiritual please? Is it really worth it?

In our upcoming Spiritual Growth Zoomcast we’ll discuss the above issues.

The Shul Zoom Boom

It’s been a long haul for us Shul lovers. But we’re making the best out of difficult situation, thanks in part to technology, and particularly Zoom.

Our first use of Zoom was for online Kiddushim. A small group of us joins a Zoom meeting before Shabbos and we share a L’chaim, some words of Torah, and a discussion of the issues of the day. It’s usually about 20 minutes long. It’s not the same as a Shabbos Kiddush, but we look forward to it and it keeps us connected on a weekly basis.

We’ve also had a few Zoom life cycle events. We’ve had a vort, a wedding, and unfortunately there have been levayas and shiva visits. Of course it’s not the same as the in-person equivalents, but it does enable a degree of connect to the baal simcha or aveilah.

Another use of Zoom is for our daily Shacharis minyan. Someone davens, saying every brocha and the beginning and ending of every paragraph out loud. There are no Devarim Shel Kedusha as it is not a halachic minyan. We pace it consistently and many people have found it very helpful for their Kavana.

This cycle of the Daf Yomi has seen two major changes. More people in our Shul are learning the Daf and the OU Daf app (https://alldaf.org/) has been a tremendous additional asset. All of our Shul Daf Yomi shiurim are functioning on Zoom. Despite the availability of the OU Daf resources, people like their shiur leaders and their chaburas, and continue to attend them on Zoom. We’ve also continued all our weekly shiurim, given by members of our shul via Zoom.

Perhaps the most impactful use of Zoom has been our Rav’s online Zoom shiurim. He gives shiurim from Sunday to Thursday at 7:30 p.m. for about 30 minutes. We get very nice attendance and it’s a real chizuk to see many fellow members on a regular basis. At the end of the shiur we unmute everybody and we shmoose for a few minutes with the Rav greeting everybody in attendance. It’s a great experience and I wonder how we’ll use Zoom to supplement the live shiurim when we return.

We anxiously await returning to Shul, but we’re thankful that Hashem has provided us with the Zoom refuah in the face of our quarantine machala.

Cross Posted from http://www.shulpolitics.com/

Pirkei Avos Week 2

This week is the second Perek for Pirkei Avos. Here is the link for an English Translation of all six Perakim culled from Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld’s translation and commentary at Torah.org. The full text of Pirkei Avos in Hebrew can be found here.

Torah.org also has some of the Maharal’s commentary for Pirkei Avos and you can purchase the Art Scroll adaptation of the Maharal’s commentary here.

Here is Chapter 2 of Pirkei Avos

1. “Rabbi said, What is the proper path that one should choose for himself? Whatever is glorious / praiseworthy for himself, and honors him before others. Be careful with a minor mitzvah (commandment) like a severe one, for you do not know the reward for the mitzvos. Consider the loss incurred for performing a mitzvah compared to its reward, and the pleasure received for sinning compared to the punishment. Consider three things and you will not come to sin. Know what is above you – an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.”

2. “Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehuda the Prince said, Torah study is good with a worldly occupation, because the exertion put into both of them makes one forget sin. All Torah without work will in the end result in waste and will cause sinfulness. All who work for the community should work for the sake of Heaven, for the merit of the community’s forefathers will help them, and their righteousness endures forever. And as for you, God will reward you greatly as if you accomplished it on your own.”

3. “Be careful with authorities, for they do not befriend a person except for their own sake. They appear as friends when they benefit from it, but they do not stand by a person in his time of need.”

4. “He used to say, make His will your will, so that He will make your will His will. Annul your will before His will, so that He will annul the will of others before your will.”

5. “Hillel said, do not separate from the community, do not trust yourself until the day you die, do not judge your friend until you reach his place, do not make a statement which cannot be understood which will (only) later be understood, and do not say when I have free time I will learn, lest you do not have free time.”

6. “He (Hillel) used to say, a boor cannot fear sin, nor can an unlearned person be pious. A bashful person cannot learn, nor can an impatient one teach. Those who are involved excessively in business will not become a scholar. In a place where there are no men, endeavor to be a man.”

7. “He (Hillel) also saw a skull floating on the water. He said to it: ‘Because you drowned you were drowned, and in the end those who drowned you will be drowned.'”

8. “He (Hillel) used to say, the more flesh the more worms, the more property the more worry, the more wives the more witchcraft, the more maidservants the more lewdness, the more slaves the more thievery. The more Torah the more life, the more study the more wisdom, the more advice the more understanding, the more charity the more peace. One who acquires a good name acquires it for himself; one who acquires words of Torah acquires a share in the World to Come.”

9. “Rabban Yochanan ben (the son of) Zakkai received [the transmission] from Hillel and Shammai. He used to say, if you have studied much Torah do not take credit for yourself because you were created for this.”

10. “Rabban Yochanan ben (the son of) Zakkai had five [primary] students. They were: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, Rabbi Yossi the Priest, Rabbi Shimon ben Nesanel, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach.”

11. “He (Rabban Yochanan ben (son of) Zakkai) used to list their praises (the praises of his five primary students). Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos is a cemented pit which never loses a drop; Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya fortunate is she who bore him; Rabbi Yossi the Priest is pious; Rabbi Shimon ben Nesanel fears sin; and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach is as an increasing river.”

12. “He used to say, if all the sages of Israel would be on one side of a scale and Eliezer ben Hurkenos on the second side, he would outweigh them all. Abba Shaul said in his name, if all the Sages of Israel would be on one side of a scale with even Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos among them, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach on the second side, he would outweigh them all.”

13. “He (Rabban Yochanan) said to them (his students) go out and see which is a good way to which someone should cleave. Rabbi Eliezer said a good eye; Rabbi Yehoshua said a good friend; Rabbi Yossi said a good neighbor; Rabbi Shimon said one who considers consequences. Rabbi Elazar said a good heart. He said to them, I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach over your words, for included in his words are your words.”

14. “He (Rabban Yochanan) said to them (his students) go out and see which is a bad way which a person should avoid. Rabbi Eliezer said a bad eye. Rabbi Yehoshua said a bad friend. Rabbi Yossi said a bad neighbor. Rabbi Shimon said one who borrows and does not pay back. One who borrows from a person is as one who borrows from G-d, as it says, “A wicked person borrows and does not repay, but the Righteous One is gracious and gives” (Psalms 37:21). Rabbi Elazar said a bad heart. He said to them, I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach over your words, for included in his words are your words.”

15. “They (the five students of Rabban Yochanan – see above Mishna 10) each said three things. Rabbi Eliezer said: The honor of your fellow should be as dear to you as your own. Do not get angry easily. Repent one day before you die. Warm yourself before the fire of the Sages. But be wary with their coals that you do not get burnt, for their bite is the bite of a fox, their sting is the sting of a scorpion, their hiss is the hiss of a serpent, and all their words are like fiery coals.”

16. “Rabbi Yehoshua said, an evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred of another person remove a person from this world.”

17. “Rabbi Yossi said, let your fellow’s property be as dear to you as your own, prepare yourself to study Torah because it is not an inheritance to you, and all of your deeds should be for the sake of heaven.”

18. “Rabbi Shimon said, be careful in reading the Shema and the prayers. When you pray, do not regard your prayers as a fixed obligation, rather they should be [the asking for] mercy and supplication before G-d, as the verse says, “For gracious and merciful is He, slow to anger, great in kindness, and relenting of the evil decree” (Joel 2:13). Do not consider yourself a wicked person.”

19. “Rabbi Elazar said, be diligent in the study of Torah. Know what to answer a heretic. Know before Whom you toil. And faithful is your Employer that He will pay you the reward for your labor.”

20. “Rabbi Tarfon said, the day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master of the house presses.”

21. “He (Rabbi Tarfon) used to say, it is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to idle from it. If you have learned much Torah, you will be given much reward, and faithful is your Employer that He will reward you for your labor. And know that the reward of the righteous will be given in the World to Come.”

Improving Our Davening at This Critical Time

We’re in a crisis situation. A situation which calls for us to storm the heavens with our prayers. So we step into our Shemoneh Esrai committed to do our best, and before we know it we’ve lost focus. What can we do? The first thing to know is that you’re not alone, almost everybody has the davening problem to some degree. The second thing to know is that we can improve. Here’s a path.

Davening is about connecting to Hashem in heart and mind. To connect to Hashem, we have to think about Hashem. A very important time to think about Hashem is when we’re praying and saying His Name. The Shulchan Aruch teaches that when saying the name Hashem, “we should concentrate on the meaning of how it is read, referring to His Lordship, that He is the Master of all.”

The Shulchan Aruch also says that “we should concentrate on (how it is written) the Yud-Hei – that He was, is, and always will be”, but the Mishna Berurah brings down in the name of the Gra, that this second meaning is only required when we say Hashem’s name in the Shema.

Is there any doubt in our mind that Hashem is the Master of all? He has brought the entire world to a standstill before our very eyes! When we say Hashem’s name in the brochos of Shomoneh Esrai, we should think and recognize that Hashem is the Master of all.

Start with the the first Brocha. If you catch yourself wandering in the middle of any brocha, bring yourself back to thinking about Hashem’s name when you conclude the Brocha. Don’t get discouraged when you’re not successful, just keep on making the effort. With repeated step by step effort, you’ll develop the ability to focus on Hashem’s name during davening.

We have to do our stop-the-spread hishtadlus. But more importantly, we have to turn and think about the Master of all in prayer. If not now, when?

Cross Posted on http://www.shulpolitics.com/

Pesach Redeeming Your Soul

Rav Itamar Schwartz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh
Download a number of amazing Drashos on Personal Redemption
Download a number of amazing Drashos on Pesach

Exile of Our Daas

The Egyptian exile was an exile of our Da’as (our mind). We learn this from what Hashem told Avraham Avinu, that “you will surely know (“yodua teida”) that your offspring will be foreigners in a land that is not theirs…”

The Egyptian exile was an exile of our da’as, and its redemption was a redemption to our da’as. From the double usage of the word da’as in the possuk (yodua teida) we learn that there are two kinds of exiles that both involve an exile of our da’as. Let us reflect what these two kinds of da’as are.

The Baal Shem Tov explains that these two kinds of da’as are a “masculine” kind of da’as and a “feminine” kind of da’as. The redemption from Egypt was a feminine kind of da’as, and the future redemption will be a masculine kind of da’as. What does he mean?

We can understand the Baal Shem’s statement as follows. Each individual has two components: feelings and vision. (An example of “vision” is that a person is obligated on the night of Pesach to see himself leaving Egypt”).

The feminine kind of da’as is “feelings”, and the masculine kind of da’as is “vision”. Egypt was an exile of our feelings – our feminine aspect of da’as. Its redemption was a redemption as well of our feminine da’as. But the future redemption will involve our masculine kind of da’as, which is our vision. “For with an eye and an eye we will see the return of Hashem to Zion.”

It is well-known that the final redemption is also contained in the first redemption. The redemption from Egypt is the root of the final redemption.

We must know what these two different kinds of redemption are in our soul.

Our Mind Is Still In Exile

There are two “kings” that reside in a person: the mind and the heart. The mind’s vision is limited and we need to learn how to expand it.

The Zohar always uses an expression of ta chazi, “come and see”, while the Gemara always uses an expression of ta shema, “come and hear.” When a person hears, he hears the feelings, but when a person sees, he doesn’t use his feelings, just his limited vision. The abilities of feeling and vision are two distinct forces in the soul, and each of them need to be removed from what’s blocking them. Our mind’s vision is prevented by being too narrow-sighted, while our heart’s feelings can be stuffed with timtum halev (spiritual “blockage”).

In the Egyptian exile, our heart was in exile. There was a redemption to this, so our feelings. But our mind still hasn’t been totally redeemed. Our feelings of the soul, such as ahavah (love), yirah (fear), hispaarus (pride), etc. were redeemed in Egypt, but our mind’s vision – in other words, our inner vision, the ability to see holiness – is still concealed in this exile.

The avodah of the Egyptian exile was to recognize Hashem’s goodness and to come to have feelings for Him, such as love and fear of Hashem. But what is the avodah of the final exile?

We must expand our minds in order to know this.

The Secret of The Redemption: Unity

The Arizal explains that the night of Pesach is a time of “gadlus hamochin” (a higher state of mind). What is the higher state of mind, and what is the lower state of mind?

Simply speaking, it means that sometimes our mind is more or less clear. But the more truthful outlook is that gadlus hamochin is a straight way of thinking – “G-d made man upright” (Koheles 7:29) – it is a straight kind of vision, and in it lies a person’s mind.

In the redemption of Egypt, anyone who didn’t merit to leave Egypt perished. The wicked perished in the plague of darkness. Everyone else who left Egypt left as one collective unit – there was achdus (unity) of the entire nation at the redemption. At this redemption, the entire Jewish people were united to follow Hashem into the desert, experience the splitting of the sea and the giving of the Torah. At all of these events, all 600,000 souls of the Jewish people were all present.

The inner way to look at reality is to see everything as one. From an inner perspective, a person sees how many details are really all one collective unit. The secret that brings redemption is unity in one unit. For example, the entire Jewish people in Egypt did not change their names, language, or dress.

Thus, the redemption is all about achdus – unity. There is a redemption that will take place to the Jewish people as a whole. There is also a personal redemption to each person that will take place, a redemption to each person’s soul. This is to redeem our mind. To redeem our mind, we must acquire an inner perspective on things – a perspective of achdus, to be able to see how many details connect and are all one.

Before, we mentioned that we have two different component in us: feelings, which are in our heart, and our vision, which is in our mind. Our mind, which is otherwise known as the masculine kind of daas, has an advantage over the heart in that it can see how many details connect as one. Our mind is capable of seeing achdus.

The second Beis Hamikdash was destroyed because of sinas chinam (baseless hatred). The future redemption will be the opposite of this; it will be a unity of the world. The secret of the redemption is achdus.

The secret to the redemption when a person acquires this inner perspective – the way to see unity in many details.

The secret to the current exile is contained in the Egyptian exile. By understanding what the Egyptian exile was, we can learn about our own redemption from the current exile, because the root of all redemption is the redemption from Egypt.

What Is This Unity?

What is this secret of “achdus” of the final redemption, which is contained in the Egyptian exile?

We say in the Haggaddah, “And G-d took us out of Egypt, not through an angel or through a seraph or through a messenger, but G-d Himself, in His Honor.”

There is a concept that everything which takes place in the world also takes place in time, and everything that takes place in time also takes place in our soul. In our own soul, there can be a redemption by Hashem Himself.

On the night of Pesach, there is a revelation of G-dliness in every person’s soul! “Not through an angel or a seraph or a messenger, but G-d himself.” As long as a person doesn’t block this revelation from happening, it becomes revealed in one’s soul on the night of Pesach: a personal redemption that takes place in the soul.

When a person still has an egotistical “I”, he is separate from others. But when there is a revelation of G-dliness in the soul, a secret of “oneness” (rozo d’echad) is revealed in the soul.

If a person looks at another person according to the other’s opinions about life, then he is apart from others. Chazal say that “Just like all faces are different, so are all minds different.” But when a person looks at another person’s soul with a deep perspective, he sees G-dliness in another Jew’s soul. He sees “Hashem Himself” that resides in the deepest point in every Jew’s soul. (This deepest point is the called “Yechidah”.) When a person has this perspective, he has an outlook of achdus toward every Jew and he unifies every soul into one unit.

This revelation that takes place in the soul on the night of Pesach is the root of the future redemption.

Thus, on the night of Pesach we have an additional form of avodah. Besides the well-known avodah of connecting ourselves to “leaving Egypt now”, we must also reveal the root of the future redemption. We must recognize what the redemption is and connect to it.

The Root of The Future Redemption – Nullifying Your Ego

The power of the future redemption is essentially the ability to leave the selfish “I” in a person. As long as a person is still egotistical, there is a divide between a person and Hashem. When a person still has his ego, he has only his daas, and each person’s daas is different. This is the depth of Chazal that “Just as all faces are different, so are all minds different.” A person’s self-absorption prevents the revelation of achdus.

We need to acquire the higher daas. This is called “Keil de’os (G-d of knowledge”, an expression used by the Rambam). This is not regular daas of a person; it is a higher kind of daas that is hidden from us. It is the kind of daas which unifies the many varying opinions of people, the many different kind of daas that everyone has.

In the redemption from Egypt, even though it was a redemption of our daas, it was only a redemption of each person’s private daas. We are still different from one another, because we each have our own opinions. It wasn’t yet a total redemption.

There are two ways how we can see this. First of all, Moshe Rabbeinu was afraid that the people wouldn’t be worthy of being redeemed, because of the wicked individuals present. This was already a lapse in the unity of the Jewish people. In addition to this, even when they were redeemed, the Erev Rav (“Mixed Multitude”, Egyptian non-Jews who escaped Egypt together with the Jewish people) came with them, which affected the unity of the Jewish people.

The future redemption, though, will be a total redemption of our daas. It will be nullification of our daas and in its place a revelation of the higher Daas, the Daas of the Creator. The revelation of Hashem by the redemption will be a revelation of the achdus of the Jewish people.

Thus we have two missions on Pesach: we must feel as if we are leaving Egypt now, to receive a new vitality in our feelings. But this isn’t enough. Even with renewed feelings, our perspective can still be very limited. Feelings without a developed mind can be imbalanced. Feelings aren’t everything. Some people are so zealous that they go overboard with their zealousness. We must realize that our feelings are only a garment on our soul. Feelings aren’t everything, and we shouldn’t get caught up in them – they need to be fused with an expanded mind.

For example, the mitzvah of Ahavas Yisrael really applies to wicked people as well. One of the four sons is a wicked son; we must still love him as a son, even though he is wicked. In the future redemption, all the dispersed members of our people will be gathered together, even the wicked members. Although in Egypt, “had the wicked son been there, he wouldn’t have been redeemed”, still, in the future redemption, which is a more complete redemption, the wicked will be included.

This kind of feeling is a feeling expanded by the mind. This is the gadlus hamochin contained in Pesach.

“Now we are slaves, Next Year we will be free”

We need both kinds of redemption: the past redemption of Egypt (which we already experienced), and the future redemption. These are two different kinds of redemption.

The previous redemption, the redemption from Egypt, is a light that we must return to each year on Pesach. The future redemption is something else: we must draw it closer to us and extend it upon us even now.

In the beginning of the Hagaddah, we say “Now we are slaves, Next year we will be free.” These are the beginning words of the Hagaddah, and they are the preface to what occurs on the night of Pesach.

In these words we mention two things. We mention the “bread of suffering” which our ancestors ate in Egypt, yet we also mention the future redemption – “Next year we will be free.” This is not just a yearning for the redemption (which is also a wonderful thing to aspire to), but it is a connection to the redemption.

If we only consider the light of the redemption to be a thing of the past, then the purpose of the festival remains concealed.

The redemption hasn’t yet come. Thus, the avodah we have on this Pesach is to awaken in us the inner meaning of the redemption – the higher aspect of the redemption, not the lower aspect of the redemption. We need both aspects. The point is that we need the higher aspect of the redemption as well.

Inspiration Lasts Only If We Expand Our Mind

Upon understanding these words, we can look at the inner depth of the avodah upon us, in a new light. There is a deep point hidden here.

Every year, the holy Jewish people want to be awakened and inspired. People hear inspiring lectures – each to his own. Everyone wants to awaken in his soul a feel for the holiness of the Yom Tov. But we must know that many times we just have “inspiration” (hisorerus) and after some time, our inspiration wanes and we just go back to “usual”.

What is the mistake that people are making? It has to do with what we have been saying until now: feelings, without the mind to guide them, are only half the equation. Even if we redeem our “feelings” and we are full of renewed feelings for holiness, without expanding our mind the feelings won’t last. It’s only “half” the redemption.

If all we do is open up our feelings, without expanding our mind – then we only have the first kind of redemption, a redemption from Egypt. We will be missing our current redemption.

With just feelings and no mind, the inspiration we get doesn’t last. We will be able to connect to the redemption from Egypt with our renewed feelings of love and fear of Hashem, but after that our inspiration will go away, and we will just be left with the remaining exiles that came after Egypt….

In order for our inspiration to last, we need an expanded mind. On the night of Pesach, one is obligated to “see” himself as if he’s leaving Egypt. What does it mean to “see” yourself leaving Egypt? Are we supposed to become deluded by our imagination?!

We can understand that all our souls were there one time in Egypt, but why must we see ourselves actually leaving Egypt now?

We need to be able to “see” since the other part of our redemption is to redeem our power of vision in the mind.

This halachah, that one must see himself leaving Egypt, contains the higher aspect of the redemption: to redeem one’s vision of the mind.

The depth of this is that if a person hasn’t nullified his ego and he doesn’t integrate himself with the Jewish people, then he doesn’t know how to “see.” He doesn’t have a vision of achdus. His redemption has nothing to do with Hashem – it’s all about redeeming himself. When a person remains absorbed in himself, he might have wonderful feelings for Avodas Hashem, but he actually might be on a very lowly level. Reb Yisrael Salanter’s words are famous – a person can be so afraid of the yom hadin (day of judgment), yet he damages others when they see a scowl on his face.

When a person only seeks to have great feelings in avodas Hashem, it doesn’t mean yet that he is pure. It’s possible that he is self-absorbed in himself as he seeks to gain high levels in avodas Hashem. He is so self-absorbed in his personal growth that he doesn’t even see any person next to him! Even when such a person relates the story of the exodus to his household, he’s wrapped up in his own self as he seeks higher levels to attain. Such a person is sorely mistaken in the purpose of the festival.

When a person doesn’t realize that the main part of the redemption is to be redeemed from one’s selfish ego, he is missing the whole redemption. He might love and fear Hashem and have all the great feelings that one can reach, but it’s all another way of being self-absorbed. This is not a true redemption.

The true redemption to have on Pesach is when one nullifies his self and integrates into the Jewish people, as a part of a whole.

When one considers the redemption of Pesach to be about himself, he only redeems “himself.” We cannot call this a redemption. The purpose of the redemption is that all should recognize Hashem; it is about revealing Hashem, not about revealing one’s “I.”

The way to redeem yourself on Pesach is actually by nullifying yourself. When a person is locked up in a jail, he desires to escape it – he wants his “I” to escape. His escape from it will just be all about how he worries for himself. But the depth to the redemption is to leave your very self and forget about yourself.

This is really the depth of Ahavas Yisrael, which is the secret of the final redemption. Ahavas Yisrael is really when your soul has a redemption – when you leave yourself!! In other words, there is a kind of personal redemption in which you leave your inner imprisonment, and then there is another kind of redemption – when you leave your “I”. This is when you leave your ego for the sake of integrating with the rest of the Jewish people.

Thus, the beginning of redemption is to redeem our feelings. We need to first leave the materialism – the “bricks and mortar” – and enter the world of spirituality. The second part of our redemption, which is the purpose, is to reach our masculine kind of daas – the revelation of unity on the world; in other words, to nullify your “I.”

Hashem should merit all of the Jewish people that we all integrate with each other and from there, to integrate in unison with the Creator, who is really the only One who exists.

Preparing for Pesach is Part of our Avodas Hashem

Rav Itamar Schwartz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of amazing Drashos on Pesach

In whatever time or situation we are in, we should always be aware that it is an inseparable part of our avodas Hashem. It doesn’t matter if it is something that has to do with ruchniyus (spirituality) or not or if it is something more mundane. Wherever we are, whatever the situation, it is somehow part of our avodas Hashem.

We must wonder in every situation: how is a Jew supposed to go about this?

In these weeks, the frum world, who keep Torah and mitzvos, is very careful to clean the house scrupulously from any trace of chametz. We have a commandment in the Torah to make sure that we do not see or find any chametz in our house; but this mitzvah has much to it which seemingly has nothing to do with Pesach.

Upon reflection, we will be able to see how preparing for Pesach is part of our avodas Hashem, and how through it we can bring ourselves to be closer to Hashem.

“Melumadah” – Acting By Rote

There is a simple point that we must all know and be aware of. This simple point is that we can find Hashem in anything – without exception!

1) When a person begins to clean his house for Pesach, he first has to get rid of the “melumadah” – the tendency to do things by rote. We are not simply cleaning out the house for Pesach “because we have to clean.” Why are you cleaning for Pesach? Because that’s what you did last year and the year before it?! That is not the reason.

2) We all know that to clean the house for Pesach is a mitzvah of the Torah, but what are our thoughts as we do this? If a person doesn’t stop to think, he is only bothered by questions such as: What is the best way to clean the house? What needs to cleaned, and how much? The whole relationship with Hashem is lost with all these questions.

So first, we must get rid of our tendency to just to things without thinking. We must realize that preparing for Pesach is purely avodas Hashem. After we know this we can begin to know how it is avodas Hashem, but the first step is this: don’t just do it like a robot. Just like we understand that learning and davening is avodas Hashem, so must we be aware that preparing for Pesach is avodas Hashem.

If a person feels that cleaning the house for Pesach is not part of avodas Hashem, we can almost tell him that he is forbidden to do it! The Chovos HeLevovos writes that there is no such thing as a gray area; it’s either forbidden or permissible. If it’s not a mitzvah, then it’s wrong to do.

We will try to explain how cleaning for Pesach can be avodas Hashem, in a way how everyone will be able to enter the Yom Tov amidst avodas Hashem, not amidst stress.

Why Do We Clean The House?

If we think into it, besides for the mitzvah of the Torah to keep the house clean from chametz on Pesach, there are more reasons why we need to clean the house.

3) One possible reason why a person cleans is because he feels bad to make the rest of his family do everything! He personally doesn’t care for the house to be clean. Most of the Pesach preparations have nothing to do with the mitzvah of destroying chametz – just various household chores. Why does a person do all these things for Pesach? Many times it is simply because he feels bad standing around and watching everyone else do all the work. He’s doing it all for the sake of chessed.

That is one possible reason why a person spends so much time with Pesach preparations.

4) Another possibility could be that we don’t like it when the house is dirty. Hashem created each person with a natural desire to have a clean house. Some people are cleanlier than others, and they can’t take even the slightest amount of messiness. But all people want their house clean somewhat, so they clean for the house for Pesach.

5) Another possibility can also be because people like it when things are orderly. During the rest of the year people are very busy, and they want to have one time in the year where they sit down and just arrange everything in its place (This is not the same thing as a desire for neatness.)

So far we have mentioned five possibilities why a person cleans the house for Pesach: Acting robotic, doing it because it’s a mitzvah of the Torah, kindness, cleanliness or orderliness.

The first kind of person we mentioned – the one who does it robotically – is obviously not doing it in the right way. That is simple and we don’t need to explain why.

The second kind of person, who does it because it’s a mitzvah, has to put some more thought into it. It is not enough to know that he must clean the house – there must be some more life involved, some more thinking.

Before he begins to clean the house, he should talk to Hashem and say, “Ribono shel olam, Why am I going to clean my house? I have other things to do; I can be learning or relaxing. The reason why I am going to clean my house now is because You, the Ribono shel Olam, commanded me that the house be free of chametz. Since I want to give You a nachas ruach, I will exert myself now to clean my house.”

While a person is cleaning the house, this is what he should be saying to himself. If someone knows how to think in learning Torah as he does something, then he should think in learning and he doesn’t have to do this. But if someone usually doesn’t think in learning as he cleans the house, and his thoughts are just floating elsewhere, then he should at least for a few minutes here and there remind himself of what he’s doing and why he’s doing it.

We are speaking about a very simple thing one can do; there are people who are on a very high level and always have d’veykus in Hashem wherever they are, but we are not speaking of this. We are speaking about something very basic and simple.

If a person cleans the house because he wants to be nice and doesn’t want everyone else to do all the work, he also has to think about this and say, “Ribono shel olam, Why am I doing this? I don’t personally feel a need to clean my house. The only reason why I am doing it is so that I can do chessed with my family.”

A person should keep talking to Hashem throughout the entire time: “Ribono shel olam, it is my will to do Your will. One of the pillars of the world is chessed, and I am thus doing chessed in order to give You a nachas ruach.”

After a day of doing this, besides for the physical exercise you get out of cleaning the house, your entire day is filled with pure avodas Hashem. In this way, a person never leaves ruchniyus even while being involved in this mundane world.

The Natural Desire for Cleanliness

Let us elaborate on the last two points, which are more subtle points about our soul.

There is a desire in a person for cleanliness. Everyone loves cleanliness – some more, and some less. The soul of a person naturally recoils a bit from messiness. People often see a mess and start cleaning it, and if you ask them, “What are you doing? Why you are cleaning it up?” the answer is, “It bothers me.”

People clean because they can’t stand the sight of something dirty or messy, and cleaning it up removes this anxiety. It seems that this has nothing to do with trying to become close to Hashem, and that a person is trying to save his soul from some pain.

But if we think into it just a little, we can connect everything to Hashem. If a person likes to clean, the first thing he should ask himself is: “Why do I like to clean? Did I make myself this way? No. Hashem gave me this nature.”

Realize that whatever your nature is, it was Hashem who gave you such a nature. Not only that, but Hashem is constantly renewing Creation; He is constantly renewing your nature, which is that you like to clean and that you hate messiness.

After you realize with certainty that it was Hashem who gave you this nature to desire cleanliness, and that He continues to renew this nature in you, now think: “Why did Hashem give me such a nature? What is the purpose of wanting cleanliness, and how do I use this natural desire in a person? What are the pros and cons of it?”

The desire for cleanliness doesn’t happen on its own. (It is absurd to think that it does, but the yetzer hora gets a person to succeed not to think.) A person must think to himself, “Hashem gave me this desire for cleanliness. It was Him who placed this desire in me.”

This realization helps you begin your relationship with Hashem.

What indeed is the root of why we like cleanliness?

Cleanliness (nekiyus) is one of the ten steps in the ladder of avodas Hashem as described by Rebbi Pinchos ben Yair, the basis of sefer Mesillas Yesharim. Cleanliness exists for us to cleanse ourselves from sin, because sin sullies our soul. Every power in the soul is also manifested somehow in our body; the power of cleanliness of our soul manifests itself in our body with the need for physical cleanliness.

The truth is that the more a person grows spiritually, the more he increases his cleanliness. Some people are very clean in their soul and others are very particular also about physical cleanliness (in addition to their spiritual cleanliness), but the point is that the more a person purifies himself, the more of a need for cleanliness he has, and the purer his soul becomes.

The root behind cleanliness comes from an inner desire to be purified. This gives us a whole different attitude to have about our need for physical cleanliness – it is rooted in our soul’s need for cleanliness and purity.

Knowing Your Motivation For Cleanliness

There are two reasons why a person wants physical cleanliness; one reason is unnecessary and more of a luxury to a person, while the other reason is coming from our soul’s need for purity and closeness.

There are situations in which we clean more than we have to, and it is extra. It is hard to say exactly what is considered overdoing it, and each person needs to decide for himself what is considered already too much. If a person is just taking a shower or brushing his teeth simply because he is very concerned about his body, this is totally unnecessary (except for certain rare individuals who won’t get affected by this).

Something even worse than this is when a person is really bothered by uncleanliness and he doesn’t clean. Such a person not only has physical messiness, but he damages his soul with this. He is denying his soul’s demand for cleanliness.

So before begins to clean, he must ask himself: What is my motivation in cleaning the house? Am I doing it out of a compulsiveness to clean (just like there are people who indulge in food and drinking), or am I doing it to help my household? If he realizes that he is doing it to help, then he should work on the avodah we mentioned before (which is to say a tefillah to Hashem).

If he discovers that he’s doing it because he has a personal need for cleanliness, he must really ask himself if he is overdoing it or not, or if it comes from a sensitivity in his soul for cleanliness (and he therefore needs it). Everyone must uncover what is motivating him to clean.

Most people do not have these issues. We will therefore discuss a more simple kind of issue that people have which is much more common: when people love to clean something that is clearly a mess. In this, we need to put some thought into the cleaning.

Before a person cleans, he should say: “Ribono shel olam, this mess really bothers me. Who gave me this feeling? You – Hashem. Where does this nature in me come from? It comes from a power in my soul to demand purity. Ribono shel olam, is it Your will that I break this nature of mine and endure the messiness? Or is it Your will that I live with purity and cleanliness? Since it is clear to me that You want my soul to desire this cleanliness, I will go clean the house in order to get close to You and give You pleasure.”

Even though you’re doing it shelo lishmah – not for the sake of Heaven (because you’re doing it out of your need for cleanliness) – you can still add this element of lishmah into your action.

But always remember that cleaning the house for Pesach is purely avodas Hashem. It must be done properly with thought and concentration.

The Importance Of Orderliness

Another point to be addressed is the fifth reason why a person wants to clean the house: to have orderliness.

Just like a person has a natural need for cleanliness, and this comes from the soul’s desire for purity which Hashem put in us, so did Hashem put in us a natural desire for orderliness.

Some people have a more of a need to be organized than others, but all people have a need to get things organized. This is not by itself – it is a nature which Hashem gave each person.

Without our natural desire for orderliness, no one would get anywhere. In order to build up anything, there is a certain order involved. Since every person on this world must build himself, Hashem endowed each person with an ability to have orderliness. Without orderliness, we wouldn’t be able to develop our avodas Hashem.

The more orderly a person is, the more he is able to develop in avodas Hashem. The less orderly a person is, the more confusion he has, and he feels like he is an exile. A person has to get out of this exile of confusion and become more orderly. This is the beginning of an inner freedom.

Orderliness is thus a need of our soul, but we often use it just for our body’s physical needs, such as the need to look very put together and organized.

Just like a dirty house makes our soul suffer, so can living in a messy house bother us so much that it is an impediment to our avodas Hashem. If we don’t care about how our house looks inside, we will definitely be affected spiritually as well.

It is well-known that when a tzaddik would look for a prospective match for his daughter, he would inspect the boy’s room and see if he’s neat. When a person has no sense of orderliness when it comes to the physical, it is a sign that he has is spiritually messy as well.

In order for our soul to get orderliness in spiritual matters, a person needs to first make sure he’s neat when it comes to his physical matters. But we must always remember that it is Hashem who gives us such a nature. We must recognize that our need for orderliness comes from Hashem, and that this need that people have doesn’t come by itself.

Realize that this need for orderliness can be used as a way to connect to the Creator. Like this, a person can take the physical world and use it to develop a relationship with Hashem. It is an inner kind of life, a life spent with Hashem even in ordinary, mundane actions.

When a person realizes that the need for organization is necessary in his avodas Hashem, he is able to realize that organizing the house is not just an act of kindness with his family, but it is a necessary part in one’s personal avodas Hashem.

In this, there are two parts. Some people were born with a need for orderliness, and it really bothers them when things aren’t in place. The avodah of such a person is to realize that this need comes from Hashem, and it is a way to serve Hashem.

But others don’t feel such a need for cleanliness. They know with their minds that a person should be orderly, but they don’t feel that this is a need for their soul. Such people feel that it makes sense to clean the house once a year, or else the house becomes unlivable…but not more than once a year.

This person’s avodah is the opposite of the first kind of person. Besides for the fact that he must organize his house, he also needs to awaken in his soul a desire to have orderliness.

Days Which We Can Grow From

A person wonders: Why did Hashem make it that people have to work so hard on Erev Pesach? Doesn’t this sacrifice our opportunities to grow spiritually by making preparations for Yom Tov? If we have to work so hard cleaning up, how do we prepare for the Yom Tov??

But if you think about it, these days before Pesach contain tremendous areas which we can use to attain growth in. If Hashem made it this way that we have to clean and organize the house, then that is the way for us to acquire all the precious areas of growth which we need.

Really, cleaning up and organizing the house are there to remind us of our soul’s need for purity. This is a precious gain in our avodas Hashem. But the yetzer hora comes and takes away the message of it and turns it into mundane actions, drying it up from all the avodas Hashem contained in it.

If a person understands the depth of avodas Hashem, he doesn’t clean the house simply because he wants it to be clean. He cleans the house because through that, he connects to an inner point in his soul – the need for spiritual cleanliness. He understands that now is precisely the time to work on this.

The truth is that all of life is like this: the yetzer hora comes and takes what’s very important and turns it into something that’s not important. In whatever we encounter, we should always see the greatness we can achieve in this situation. The more confusing and seemingly pointless a situation appears, the more greatness lies in it if we uncover it.

If a person before Pesach is caught up in this and that and he comes into the Yom Tov exhausted and stressed out, what is all our hard work worth? We don’t gain from this kind of a life.

If we don’t see how everything we do can be a form of avodas Hashem and how much being involved with the world takes away from our soul, then these days go to waste. Our preparation for Pesach should not be a physical preparation; although we do exert our body to prepare for Pesach, really, there is an inner depth taking place in what we are doing. It is really a preparation of our soul for the coming days. Through preparing for it in the right way, a person comes into Yom Tov the way he should.

Each person can take these words and open them up more to himself, each to his own. The common denominator between all people is the days preceding Pesach are days of ruchniyus, not days of materialistic pursuits. They are days of closeness to Hashem.

Hashem should help us that we prepare properly for Pesach during these days, from a sincere desire to give pleasure to our Creator. In these days preceding Pesach, each of us should merit to increase our true closeness and love of Hashem.

The Five Minute Seder and the Five Minute Plus Seder

Some people want to have a very fast seder. This guide is for them.

A few years ago a non-observant friend asked if I could put together a five minute seder.
I had written a A Longer Guide to the Seder. I pared it down to just the essential steps.
Pass it on to anyone for whom it might be helpful.

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1) Kaddesh – Sanctify the day with the recitation of Kiddush
*Leader says

On Shabbos add:
Vay’hi erev vay’hi voker yom hashi-shi. Vay’chulu hashamayim v’ha-aretz v’choltzva’am.
Vay’chal Elohim bayom hashvi’i, m’lachto asher asah, vayishbot bayom hashvi-i,
mikol-mlachto asher asah. Vay’vareich Elohim, et-yom hashvi’i, vay’kadeish oto,
ki vo shavat mikol-mlachto, asher-bara Elohim la-asot.

On all days continue
Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ha-Gofen.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher bachar banu mikol’am,
v’rom’manu mikol-lashon, v’kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, vatiten-lanu Adonai Eloheinu
b’ahavah (shabatot limnuchah u) moadim l’simchah, chagim uz’manim l’sason et-yom
(hashabat hazeh v’et-yom) chag hamatzot hazeh. Z’man cheiruteinu, (b’ahavah,)
mikra kodesh, zeicher litziat mitzrayim. Ki vanu vacharta v’otanu kidashta mikol
ha’amim. (v’shabat) umo’adei kod’shecha (b’ahavah uv’ratzon) b’simchah uv’sason
hinchaltanu. Baruch atah Adonai, m’kadeish (h’shabbat v’) Yisrael v’hazmanim.

Ba-ruch A-tah A-do-noi E-loi-hei-nu Me-lech ha-o-lam
she-he-chee-ya-nu v’ki-yi-ma-nu vi-hi-gi-ya-nu liz-man ha-zeh.

*Drink the 1st cup of wine. Lean to your left while drinking.

2) Urechatz, – *Wash your hands before eating Karpas.

3) Karpas – *Eat a vegetable dipped in salt water.
*Leader says Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ho-adomah –
*Everybody eats the vegetable. Lean to your left while eating.

4) Yachatz. -* Break the middle Matzah. Hide the larger half for Afikoman.

5) Maggid – *Tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt
Here is a summary of the story. (Alternatively go around the room reading in English from a translated Haggadah.)

The main mitzvah of the night is telling about the Exodus from Egypt.
*Pour the 2nd Cup of Wine
*Four Questions are asked

*The answer to the four questions is given.

According to one commentator, it’s broken up into 6 parts based on the verse in the Torah which describes the mitzvah of telling the story at the Seder:
“And you shall relate to your child on that day saying: it is because of this Hashem acted for me when I came forth out of Egypt.”

a)– And you shall relate to your child – four types of chidren/people with different belief levels are discussed.

b)– on that day – explains that we should tell the story on Passover night and not earlier in the month,

c)– saying – the actual story:
Our ancestors were idol worshippers;—– through Abraham;—– Egyptian Enslavement;—– We cry out;—– G-d hears our cries
G-d saves us with the 10 plagues;—– We express our thanks for G-d saving us
Dip your finger in the wine for the 10 plagues
1) Water, which turned to blood and killed all fish and other aquatic life
2) Frogs
3) Lice
4) Wild animals
5) Disease on livestock
6) Incurable boils
7) Hail and thunder
8) Locusts
9) Darkness
10) Death of the first-born of all Egyptian humans and animals. To be saved, the Israelites had to place the blood of a lamb on the front door of their houses.

d) — It is because of this — “Rabban Gamliel explains why we use the Passover offering, Matzah and Maror.
The Passover lamb, represented in our times by the roasted bone, recalls the blood on the doorposts and the terror and anticipation of the night of the plague of the first born.

Matzah is what we ate in the morning when Israel was rushed out of Egypt with no time to let their dough rise.

Maror captures the bitterness of the enslavement.

e) — Hashem acted for me…” – “In every generation, we should see ourselves as if we had gone out from Egypt.

f) – when I came forth out of Egypt.” –We recite 2 songs of praise to G-d similar to the songs recited when we left Egypt.

*Leader of Seder recites Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ha-Gofen.
*Drink the 2nd cup of wine. Lean to your left while drinking.

6) Rachtzah – *Wash the hands prior to eating Matzah and the meal.
*After washing and before drying say
*Say Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melcch Ho-olom Asher Kidshonu B’mitzvosov V’tzivonu Al N’tilas Yodoyim.

7) Motzi – *Recite the Hamotzi blessing over eating Matzah before a Meal
*Say Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Hamotzi Lechem Min Ho-oretz.

8) Matzah – *Recite the blessing over eating Matzah
*Say Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Asher Kidshonu B’mitzvosov Vtzivonu Al Achilas Matzah.

*Eat the Matzah. Lean to your left while eating.

9) Maror – *The Maror is dipped in Charoscs
*Say Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Asher Kidshonu B’mitzvosov Vtzivonu Al Achilas Maror.
*Eat the Maror.

10) Korech – *Eat a sandwich of Matzah and Maror.
*Eat the Sandwich.

11) Shulchan Orech – *Eat the festival meal

Find the Afikoman.

12) Tzafun – *Eat the Afikoman which had been hidden all during the Seder.
*Pour the 3rd cup of wine

13) Barech – Recite Birchas Hamazon, the blessings after the meal

*Leader of Seder recites blessing Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ha-Gofen.
*Drink the 3rd cup of wine. Lean to your left while drinking.

*Pour the 4th cup of wine;
*Pour the cup for Elijah

14) Hallel – Recite the praises of G-d
*Leader of Seder recites Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ha-Gofen.
*Drink the 4th cup of wine. Lean to your left while drinking.

15) Nirtzah – Pray that G-d accepts our praise and speedily sends the Messiah.
Sing the songs of the Haggadah

photo credit: dcJohn via photopin cc

Taking a Step Forward after Three Hard Steps Back

It’s a tough time for worldwide Shul goers: no public shiurim, no social contact, no davening with a Tzibbur. However, there is a tremendous opportunity here to take a step to improve our davening. Let me share a practical idea.

Our spiritual purpose in life is to connect to Hashem and to His creations. The collective end point of that process is one world under G-d, with unity, love, peace and happiness for all. We connect to Hashem by thinking about Him, feeling emotionally connected to Him, and doing physical acts of spiritual connection.

Davening contains all three of these components, but the essence of davening is feeling emotionally connected, as we learn in the Gemora in Taanis, “Prayer is the Service of the Heart”. It’s also the hardest component. We can arrive at Shul, say the prayers, and because we are distracted, barely think about Him, much less feel emotionally connected.

The emotional connections that we are seeking to develop during davening are love of Hashem and awe of Hashem. Let’s look at love, which is the feeling of a deep connection. A foundational spiritual thought, and the first of the 6 constant mitzvos, is that there is one G-d who is the cause of all that exists. If we look at the wonderful things in our life, we can appreciate that Hashem caused it, with love for us. We can then start to reciprocally return that love to Him.

Every time we say the word Boruch, which is usually explained as Hashem being the source of blessing, we can appreciate the love that Hashem is showering on us with His gifts in this world. We can then try to direct our love right back at Him. There are 100 opportunities a day to feel this love, and we can try to connect at least once a day, when we say Boruch.

Spiritual growth is a step by step process. Today we have a tremendous opportunity to take one step forward, after having been propelled three hard steps back.

Reposted from http://www.shulpolitics.com/

Developing Our Spiritual Side

Now is a tremendous opportunity to work on our spiritual growth. Sometimes it’s helpful to step back and take a fresh look at what we are trying to achieve.

I was having dinner with a childhood friend a while back, and he lamented that he wanted to do more to develop his spiritual side. In my current neighborhood, I have many friends who express that same concern, including myself. Since I have studied much about this subject and have discussed it with others, I thought I would share some practical ideas in these anxious times.

If we want to develop our physical side, we might pursue a better exercise routine and healthier eating habits. To develop our emotional side, we might work on reducing anger and anxiety, while increasing our capacities for love and happiness. Development of our mental side might include learning and remembering new things, as well as increasing our capacity to understand, apply, analyze, evaluate and create.

In Judaism, developing our spiritual side means increasing our capacity to connect to G-d and His creations. The collective end point of that process is one world under G-d, with unity, love, peace and happiness for all. Individual spiritual development is like physical, emotional and mental development, in that it is a step by step process.

Spirituality consists of thinking about G-d, feeling emotionally connected to Him, and doing acts of spiritual connection. A foundational spiritual thought is that there is one G-d who is the cause of all existence. Any time we actively think that thought, we are doing an act of spiritual connection. If we look at our beautiful world, or any of the wonderful things in our life, and feel an emotional connection to G-d, the creator of all existence, then we have taken a step in creating an emotional connection to G-d.

Thinking about the ideas stated here is taking a step in our spiritual development. If we take the time to think about G-d as the source of something in our life, we will have taken another step. There are many opportunities for spiritual development and we each must take our own steps. To be continued…

Beyond Corona – I

We are taught that our purpose in life is to connect to Hashem and to create a world where Hashem is One and His Name is One. Since we’re spending more time alone, perhaps we can work on connecting to Hashem, so we can get Beyond Corona.

One way to connect to Hashem is to think about Him. The first constant mitzvah is “To believe that there is one G-d in the world that caused all that exists to be so”. When we read about Corona, if we add the thought that Corona and everything in the world comes from Hashem, we have performed a mitzvah and strengthened our connection to Hashem. When we try to put this into practice we will see that it is difficult, because the distraction of reading makes it difficult to think about Hashem.

Perhaps it will be easier to think about Hashem when we say His name in davening and Brachos. The Shulchan Aruch says that when mentioning the name Hashem, we should concentrate on the meaning of how it is read (Adon*i): that He is the Master of all. We should also concentrate on the Yud-Kei-Vav-Kei spelling: that He was, He is, and He always will be. This is also difficult, because we are not in the habit of concentrating when we pray. So perhaps we can try to put this in practice during the Shema and the first Brocha of Shemoneh Esrai.

If many of us try and think about Hashem’s name when we say the Shema and the first Brocha of Shemoneh Esrai, then we will have taken a tremendous first step in getting Beyond Corona.

The Love and Happiness of Adar

Increasing Our Happiness During Adar
The Gemara in Taanis (29a) teaches us that Mishenichnas Adar Marbim B’simcha, when Adar begins we increase our happiness. Rashi comments that “Purim and Pesach were days of miracles for Yisrael” and therefore Adar and Nisan are joyous months. Let’s take a brief dive into the Torah concept of happiness so that we can maximize our joy during this wondeful time.

What is Happiness
The Maharal in his commentary to Mishna 6.1 in Avos teaches that happiness flows from completion just as grief is the result of loss and deficiency. Happiness takes many forms. When we crave a favorite food, attaining it creates a sense of completeness, and generates happiness. Much of our lives is composed of wanting things, getting them, and achieving a small dose of happiness as a result. When we do the right thing in a difficult situation, we feel more complete in the use of our strengths and capabilities, and this generates happiness.

Happiness from Love
When we feel connected to friends and family through the emotion we call love, we feel more complete and happy. The Chovos HaLevovos, the Mesillas Yesharim and the Rambam teach that love of Hashem generates the highest sense of completion and therefore the greatest pleasure and happiness.

Developing Love
The higher, love-based levels of happiness take more time and effort to attain, are deeper, and are high Torah priorities. “Loving Hashem” and “Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself” are two cornerstone mitzvos. When we appreciate the miracles that Hashem did for us on Purim and Pesach, we deepen our connection and love of Him, which increases our sense of completion and our happiness. It takes thought, focus and effort, but we are all capable of developing a love and a connection to Hashem and of enjoying the resulting happiness.

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz zt”l – Towards a Subler Noncomformity

Today is Rabbi Dovid Schwartz’ zt”l yahrzeit. Please read his classic post on the how to deal with conformity.

Towards a Subtler Nonconformity

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz

The majority of the posts and comments on the conformity debate deal with standardization in dress and speech. The basic consensus is that swallowing hard and adopting a bleak conformity is just another of the many sacrifices that we make for integration into the Frum community. Unlike relinquishing, say, seafood this demanding sacrifice seems to reward those who make it with a lifetime of ambivalence. Here are some thoughts I hope will make us more comfortable within our own skins by recasting this never-ending and draining sacrifice as a labor of love.

We need to ask ourselves: “Do I yearn for nonconformity or individuality?” At times, nonconformity implies a grouchy contrariness simply for the sake of being contrary. It often indicates insecurity and low self-esteem that cannot be assuaged without gaining notoriety. The nonconformist may be subconsciously saying “If I can gain prominence by excelling at what I do and where, I am… terrific if not I will do so by deviating from the expected standards in obvious and attention-grabbing ways”. In short it often comes from an unhealthy place.

Individuality, on the other hand, expresses the central Human longing for self-actualization and the resistance to external oppressive forces that would squash it. It is a wholesome drive that unites rather than divides BTs and FFBs. It is born in a whisper at our innermost core that demands that we be who we truly are. Where nonconformity is reactive, individuality is proactive. The drive for individuality concerns itself not with modes of dress but with the personality being clothed, not with the language but with the message, not with affectation but with effects, not with mannerisms but with middos (character traits).

IMO, we often under valuate our lifestyle makeovers. In spite of the popular “Avrohom” and “Yisro” models for repudiation of the dominant culture, what compels a Jew to do T’shuva in the post-Sinai era is not a rejection of secularity or secularities’ excesses. These may serve as triggers to the process but they are not the key moving forces. Rather, it is the drive for individuality. A Jew is a Jew and can never hope for self-actualization without Torah and Mitzvahs i.e. living as a Jew. An eagle that has grown up among marching penguins does not take flight to spite the penguins and mock their black and white conformity. The eagle flies because that’s what eagles do. Even when both are at rest the eagle is qualitatively unlike the penguin. It need not behave differently to be different. Yet, its very being compels it towards unique behaviors.

There is a Midrash about the cruelty of S’dom. In S’dom there was only one bed for wayfarers. When the forlorn traveler was forced to spend a night in S’dom they were made to lie down on a “one-size-fits-all” bed. If they were too short a rack would stretch them and if they were too tall they would be decapitated to fit the bed.

The dominant culture with its tyrannical egalitarianism is the heir to the mantle of S’dom’s bed. While ostensibly celebrating nonconformists by allowing for some superficial dissimilarities it is a culture that demands leveling and conformity between men and women, between old and young and between criminal and victim. Many a soul has been stretched to the breaking point or constrained and crushed by this harsh and unreal steamrolling.

Paradoxically, the outward uniformity of frum societies proffers the blessing of true individuality. It is precisely because so much external uniformity is expected that people must dig deeply to discover what makes them unique and irreplaceable individuals. In analyzing both the sacred avodah of Hagrolah (the sacrifice lottery) on Yom Kippur and Shoshanas Yaakov, the anthem of Purim, Rav Hutner Z”tl explains that once we posit that two things are, in fact, different it follows that the greater the number of layers of external similarity they share then, perforce, the deeper and closer to their cores will be that which actually differentiates them.

Chazal describe Hashem as “the peerless Artist” because every piece of His work (human beings) is a one of a kind creation. Our aching to be unique is a paean to the Divine Artist. It is nothing less than the ultimate, logical conclusion of imitatio dei (Mitzvah of Divine Imitation:clinging to the ways & middos of HaShem). Just as He is Yochid (singularly individual) so shall you be! Individuality ought to be embraced and celebrated in spiritual, sophisticated, deep-seated ways that flow outward from the core of our values and our beings not relegated to some quirks at the outer limits of our most public personas. Such quirkiness represents little more than a clichéd, shallow conformist’s losing touch with their individuality by “going with the (nonconformist) flow”.

The Joy of Existence

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

From Getting to Know Your Self

A person wants to be happy and at peace only by attaining something else that he is currently lacking. He feels now that joy and peace are lacking, and that once he will get it, he will have joy and peace. If so, the joy comes from attaining something one does not have yet. On the other hand, there is a kind of joy and peace that comes from merely existing. Chazal said of this, “Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his portion.” Obviously, they were not referring to the one who has all his needs fulfilled. Rather, the person is lacking things, and yet, he is happy. But how can he be happy? He can’t pay his expenses for the month! His daughter might be in the hospital! How can he be happy if he has all these troubles?

This is a joy that comes from existence. It is not a joy because one has shoes or socks. If one makes a calculation, he might decide that in fact, he lacks a lot of things, even more than what he does have. When can one really be happy? When he is happy because of his existence, not because of what he owns.

What is this joy of existence? How does one do it? What’s so good about it? We must understand and consider: what is one’s natural state – happy, or sad? If we decide that the natural state is one of happiness, there would need to be a cause to make one sad. If we decide, on the other hand, that the natural state is sadness, then there must be a cause to make one happy. What is one’s true nature? If there would be no external forces, what would one’s natural state be? Happy, or sad? For example, if you take a car and place it at an incline, the natural state of the wheels would cause it to go downward, because of gravity. Without using the breaks, it wall go downward. What is one’s natural state: happy, or sad?

The answer is that a person is naturally happy! If a person is created naturally happy, he will be happy if there are no opposing factors. These factors might place one in a state of sadness. If so, why isn’t a person happy? One will respond that he lacks a livelihood, or good health, or proper respect. This may be correct, but it is a very superficial attitude. The real reason one isn’t happy is that he wants things besides his existence. If one would need a reason to be happy, he could claim, “Why should I be happy? I’m lacking this and that! How could I be happy?” But if one’s very nature, by virtue of his creation, is to be happy, if he doesn’t make himself want things, he will naturally be happy! The ratzon is the beginning of the process of uprooting joy from a person’s soul. It’s not as it seems to be, that one lacks and therefore is sad. Rather, because one wants things, he feels a lack, and that lack removes his natural joy. Joy is natural, and if one will just take care to not destroy himself, he will be happy.

How does one avoid destroying himself? He must live in a world without desires. Superficially, such a person would seem lifeless. Doesn’t he want anything? What kind of a life is it when you don’t want anything? How is it possible? The true answer is as follows: If someone lives in a three-story villa, and he is given the opportunity to live in a suffocating underground warehouse with no windows – with the option that the air conditioner will be fixed – he would say, “Thank you, but leave me alone!” If told, “What a lifeless person! You are offered a nice apartment; why don’t you want it?” he would respond, “If I were a homeless person with only a bench on the street, your suggestion would in fact be charming, but why would I want a warehouse without a window in place of a three-story villa?”

If a person were asked, “Would you like us to throw stones at you?” he would say, “No!” Would they say, “You’re like dead; you have no desires; you should want people to throw stones”? The answer is clear: a person only wants something if he believes that he will be better off when he gets it than he is now. But if the current state is fine, one’s lack of desire does not come from inner lifelessness, but because he now has all he needs.

The problem is that we do not look at our lives as a state in which we have everything. The pasuk says, “I left my mother’s womb naked, and naked I shall return.” People think this is negative, because a person is born with nothing. But he’s not born with nothing! A person is born with everything! However, we and the world teach the soul that “you need this, you need that.” Gradually, the person is convinced that he needs and needs, and he lacks and lacks, so what was a happy person became a very needy person.

Az Yashir: An Introduction

From Weekly Tefilah Focus and on Torah Anytime
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When we were being chased by the Egyptians at the Yam Suf and we were miraculously saved, the mal’achim wanted to sing praise to Hashem. However, Hashem did not allow them to. “My handiwork is drowning and you wish to sing a song of praise?” (Gemara, Megillah 10b). Conversely, when we eventually saw the Egyptians washed up on the shores of the Yam Suf, Moshe and the entire nation called out in shirah, the song of praise we know as “Az Yashir.” Why were we permitted to sing praise when themal’achim were not? What happened to the fact that Hashem’s handiwork had drowned?

The well-known answer is that the mal’achim had no direct benefit from K’rias Yam Suf. Therefore, it was inappropriate for them to sing when Hashem’s creations were drowning. We, on the other hand, were saved from destruction and therefore benefited greatly. Therefore, we were not only permitted to sing praises to Hashem, but we were in fact obligated to do so.

There is another beautiful answer, which will serve as our introduction to Az Yashir. It is based on Reb Yonah Weinrib’s writing in his beautifully artistic work on Hallel, which is sourced from Mishnas Rav Aharon on Pesach, though much has been added.

The shirah, the song of praise, has the power to infuse man with a greater internalization of emunah. We can read about, hear, and even see spectacular wonders and miracles; and though we are inspired at the moment, the effect can and will evaporate in a short period of time, unless we take action to internalize deeply what we have witnessed, read, or heard. And, therefore, Hashem wants us to sing shirah at that moment so that we grow from the experience, as opposed to angels who do not grow, notwithstanding the fact that he is saddened because his handiwork is drowning.

There is a story in one of Rabbi Paysach Krohn’s books about a man who was crying very emotionally at the Kosel. Two individuals observing the man decided that, after he was finished, they would approach him and offer their assistance both financially and medically, since one had considerable financial resources and the other was heavily involved in the chesed of providing medical assistance in Eretz Yisrael. When the man finished, they approached him and asked him what was troubling him so much that brought him to such tearful and heartfelt emotion, and they made their offer to help. The man responded that all was well and he did not need any help. Then why were you crying with such emotion? The man responded, I just married off my last child of my large family and I am so grateful to Hashem that I couldn’t control myself as I thanked Him profusely. Those were tears of joy.

We often find the words l’hodos and l’hallel together in that order. Allow us to present very briefly a progression leading to an outburst of emotion of praise to Hashem. The first step is recognition. We must become more aware and recognize the great loving-kindness that Hashem gifts to us. That leads to our verbal expression of thanks to Hashem as step two. These two steps are “l’hodos,” which is hakaras ha’tov. The third step is to contemplate Hashem’s love for us and the kindness that Hashem has granted to us until we reach the point where the emotion within us bursts out in song of praise. That is l’hallel and zimrah. That level of shirah and all that led to it has the ability to have a dramatic impact on us. It builds within our neshamos a more profound appreciation of the greatness of Hashem, and brings forth wellsprings of emunah that reside deep within us.

The growth in emunah and closeness to and love for Hashem that can be gained from shirah is immeasurable.

We now understand the answer to our initial question. It is entirely appropriate for us to recite shirah because we are elevating ourselves significantly through singing shirah, whereas the mal’achim could not sing the shirah because they would not benefit. They are stagnant in their level and do not grow as we do.

Perhaps we now have a better understanding of why Chazal say, “One who sings shirah in this world will merit to sing it in the next world” (Sanhedrin 91b). And perhaps this is why the Chofetz Chaim, based on a midrash, writes that one who says the shirah with simchah merits to have his aveiros forgiven (Mishnah B’rurah, siman 51 s”k 17). May we merit to reach the level of saying the shirah with heart, emotion, and simchah, and merit to deepen our emunah and connection with Hashem, have our aveiros forgiven, and merit to sing Hashem’s praises in the next world.

Weekly Tefilah Focus is a weekly email created to assist those who wish to improve their kavanah in tefilah. The program is designed to work by participants investing only a few minutes a week to focus on one particular segment of tefilah. Rabbinic advisers include Rabbi Doniel Lander (Rosh Yeshiva Ohr Hachaim) and Rabbi Noach Isaac Oelbaum. Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman (Mashgiach Ruchani Yeshiva Ohr Hachaim) is the voice of Weekly Tefilah Focus on Torah Anytime.

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The Engaging Shabbos Table

by Rabbi Aryeh Goetz

If the goal of your Shabbos table is to create a positive and unifying experience for participants of all ages and backgrounds, here are some simple techniques that encourage everyone’s participation. This format is wonderful for those who would like to invite guests who may be less familiar with Shabbos customs, but it works equally well any family or group, as well.

Set Up
The set up of the table should be to form one “circle”, so each person can have eye contact with every other person seated. It’s best not to have a separate children’s table or a T-shaped configuration, if possible. It is also helpful to have bentchers on the table, set at the places, or handed out to the guests. This is often a good job for one of the children. Remember to announce the page if you have guests that may not be familiar with the songs (Shalom Aleichem, Eishes Chayil, Shabbos zemiros). “Newcomers” that are not familiar with the songs, should be given an English/Hebrew version or a siddur to at least follow along reading to themselves in English, so they get a sense of what is being said.

Kiddush & HaMotzi
Introduce the concept to newcomers in a phrase that explains the meaning of Kiddush. It could be somewhat like this: “Kiddush is to testify that G-d created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th day. We emulate this concept by refraining from creative work on Shabbos. The second theme of the Kiddush is that HaShem brought the Jewish people out from slavery in Egypt and formed them into a nation and gave them the Torah. Shabbos is one of the gifts in the Torah.” If there is someone who is not familiar with the washing of the hands, make sure someone in the family explains this procedure and recites the blessing of al netilas yadiam with him or her. Casually mention that there is no speaking between the hand washing and the distribution and eating of the challah. New guests enjoy this a lot!

Introductions & Theme Question
After the first course is served and everyone has some food on their plate and in their stomach, we begin “introductions”. Going around the table, I start (so I can model what I want to happen) and we go around to the right (counter-clockwise). I ask each person to say his or her name. This is especially helpful when there are guests who may not know the names of the children or the names of the other guests. I say something like, “Please say your name, since everyone may not yet know everyone else”. It is a helpful icebreaker at the start. Also, I ask each person to answer the “theme question” after they introduce themselves. The theme question is a one or two word topic to which everyone will be able to relate, and it has an “open ended” style. We are not looking for one ‘right answer’. Whatever comes to mind is a good answer. The topic is related either directly or indirectly to the weekly parsha. I announce the name of the parsha and then the theme. For instance, for parsha Bereshis the theme might be “garden” or it might be “tree” or any other related word, for Noach, some example may be “flood” or “animal”. One person may end up discussing the time that his basement flooded, and how he reacted. Another guest may talk about a big storm and how it affected her life.

The theme question gives people a chance to express themselves in a non-judgmental context. It works for all age groups and encourages speaking as well listening skills. Everyone gets to know what the others are thinking. Parents can get an insight into what is on the minds of their children. If someone can’t think of something to say relating to the theme, he can just state his name and ‘pass’ until everyone else is done and we can come back to him when he is ready, if he would like.

The Dvar Torah
The theme question is a great segue way to the Dvar Torah. When the children are younger, they are asked to speak about something they learned in school or discuss a point from their ‘parsha sheet’. Starting from youngest to oldest, keeps an orderly flow and allows the younger ones to say something that had not yet been said, since they are going first. After a young child has his or her turn to speak, he or she may want to leave the table to play if it is too much for them to pay attention to the others. They should be allowed to leave the table after their turn by asking permission. This allows the meal to be child-focused and not guest- focused for as long as it is enjoyable for the children, and the guests gain much as well by focusing on the children’s presentations.

When the children got older, I gave the Dvar Torah first and asked anyone (child or guest) who had something to share, to do so. Over the years, the children gained self-confidence in public speaking and listening skills. Some young children love the “public speaking” opportunity so much, they stand up on their chairs when their turns come.

Zemiros / Singing
As the main course ends, the singing of the zemiros is a cue for the plates to be cleared from the table. One can ask a newcomer guest if he knows any Jewish songs or a guest can choose the zemer or lead the tune, if they are willing.

The Dessert Question
The concluding question is called the “dessert question” because it is answered while dessert is served and eaten. The question is the same each week but the answer always differs, because each week has brought new experiences. The question is: “What was the highlight of your week?” This encourages people to think back from last Shabbos until now, review their week, focus on a positive experience, and share it with others. There is no particular order to answer the “dessert question.” Anyone who is ready to share their highlight, may start. It also encourages thankfulness to HaShem for many blessings.

Bentching
I thank my wife for the delicious meal, if I haven’t already done so, and all those who assisted in preparing, cleaning up or bringing something for Shabbos. We bentch together, as this brings closure to the meal. Afterwards, those who want to leave the table are free to do so. Those that would like to stay and talk are welcome to stay at the table or go into the living room. It is important that people (especially children) should not be “held hostage” at the table for too long. Children who have left the table should be called back for the dessert question and the group bentching. We usually sing the first paragraph in unison.

Our Shabbos tables have the potential to be unifying opportunities for participants of all ages and backgrounds, just by making a few simple accommodations. I hope this provides some ideas with which to experiment and enhance Shabbos pleasure!

Rabbi Aryeh Goetz is the Director of Neighborhood Investment for CHAI (Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc.) and rabbi of the Jewish Recovery Houses in Baltimore, Maryland. He can be reached at aryehgoetz@gmail.com. Originally published January 2016.

Shovavim – Repairing Our Thoughts

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Introduction To “Shovavim”

The holy sefarim[1] describe the days of “Shovavim” (Parshas Shemos through Parshas Mishpatim) as days of teshuvah (repentance), based on the possuk, “Return, wayward sons”, and that the main sin which we need to focus our teshuvah on during these days is to rectify the sin of keri (spilling human seed).

We need to know what the root of the spiritual light is that exists during this time, what exactly it means to damage the Bris, and how it is rectified.

In many places, the custom during these days is to recite Selichos (prayer supplications) and to perform various tikkunim (soul rectifications) for the public.

The ancient scholars who taught the inner parts of the Torah[2] established five ways to rectify the sin of spilling seed, and each of them are based on the five different causes that can lead a person to the sin. The five causes that bring about this sin are: 1) Thoughts, 2) Desire to gaze at another woman[3], 3) Desire for gay behavior[4], 4) Wasted spittle[5], 5) One who deliberately delays circumcision[6].

In these coming chapters (Shovavim #02, #03, #04, #05 and #06) we will not delve that in-depth into the esoteric concepts here; rather, we will see the homiletic statements of our Sages about these matters.

We will begin, with the help of Hashem, with the first path of rectification of the sin, which is to rectify the thoughts.

Rectifying The Thoughts: Returning To The “Beginning”

The power of thought is described as the “beginning point” of man. To illustrate the concept, the first thing Hashem did to create the world was that He thought about it. The beginning of a matter is always with thought, thus, thought is seen as the beginning point. Thought is the first kernel of wisdom that allows for the wisdom to become expanded further and further.

Since the purpose of Creation is to reveal the sovereignty of Hashem, “the end of action is first with thought”, therefore, the end of Creation, which will be the purpose, is somewhat reflected in the beginning point of Creation. So the concept of thought, which is the beginning point of Creation, is actually a reflection of the purpose of Creation.

Before the conception of the Jewish people, the Torah describes the 70 nations who descended from Esav. Although the Jewish people are called raishis, “the beginning,” they were still preceded by the 70 nations. What is the meaning of this? It is because the 70 nations of the world are a different kind of beginning. They are another kind of tool which brings about the revelation of Hashem. We see this from the fact that in the future, Hashem will first reveal Himself to all the nations, “And His Kingdom will reign over all jurisdictions”, and after that, the Jewish people will then become the tool that will reveal the purpose of Creation. The purpose of Creation is the revelation of Hashem’s Presence upon the world, and when His sovereignty will be revealed, that will be the tool that brings it about.

Thus, there are different tools which Hashem has set into motion that will reveal the purpose of Creation. Even the gentile nations of the world will be a key factor in the process; this is actually the deeper meaning behind why Esav’s head is buried with the Avos. It is a hint to the fact that the beginning of the nations is really good at its root. The nations of the world have a good beginning, because they will be the first stage in the revelation of Hashem upon the world; it is just that their end will not be lofty as their beginning was. Their dominion will come to an end, and that is why only Esav’s head is buried with the Avos, because only the “head” of Esav is worthy. The Jewish people, by contrast, have both a beginning and an end which will reveal Hashem upon the world.

When one’s thoughts are damaged through sinful thinking, that essentially means that the “beginning” point in a person is damaged. This has several aspects to it. One aspect of our thoughts is that our thoughts are meant to remain inside us; our thoughts are private, and they are supposed to be kept private. To illustrate, we don’t know what others are thinking; the reason for this is to show us that thoughts are supposed to be kept private. When thoughts do need to become revealed, they must be revealed in a proper way, because in essence, they are really meant to be kept private.

Thus, we have a two-fold avodah in protecting our power of thought: We need to keep them private, and in addition, when we do reveal them, they need to be revealed properly.

The Root of Damaging The Bris: Feeling Completely Independent

The root of a person’s downfall is when he thinks he is perfect. “Esav” is called so because he was asuy, already “made”, meaning, he was born “complete”; the inner meaning of this is that he thought he was complete, and that is the depth of his ruination. When a person thinks he is complete, he denies the fact that he needs others in order to be completed. Because he thinks he is perfect, he doesn’t feel a need to connect with others. This is really the depth behind damaging the Bris: when a person thinks that he does not need to receive from others. When a person is unmarried, he can understand well what it means to feel lacking; he knows that he needs to be completed by another.

Although we find that the Sage Ben Azai did not marry, because he desired learning Torah alone and didn’t feel the need to be completed by a woman, still, although he reasoned well, we know that his path is not meant for us to take, for the Sages recount that when he was shown Heavenly revelations as a result of his spiritual level, he could not survive the revelations, and he died out of shock.

After Adam sinned, before Kayin and Hevel were even conceived, it is brought in the holy sefarim[7] that droplets of keri left his body; and for the 130 years that he was separated from Chavah after the sin, demons were formed from those droplets. Why was he punished? It was because he blamed Chavah for the sin; “This woman you gave me, it is she who gave me from the tree that I ate.” When he said this, the deeper implication of this was that he was basically saying that he doesn’t need her, chas v’shalom, for he was declaring that woman is detrimental to man. So he thought he doesn’t need her to complete him, and that he is better off without her.

This leads us the way to how we can fix the sin of spilling seed. When one feels incomplete, and he is aware that he needs to receive from others in order to become complete, he has fixed the sin at its root. Perfection is not achieved by feeling perfect about yourself and not needing others; rather, it is achieved precisely when one realizes he is incomplete without another to help him reach perfection.

The Deeper Implication of Misusing The Thought Process

In the power of thought, there are three kinds of thoughts: Chochmah, Binah, and Daas. Chochmah is the knowledge that one learns from his teachers. Binah is to reflect on the words of the Chochmah and thereby expand upon them. Daas is to connect the information that the Chochmah imparts and the information that the Binah imparts, bringing them to their potential. Daas reflects the concept that Chochmah needs Binah in order to become complete.

Thus, when a person has sinful thoughts, he has misused his daas, because he thinks he doesn’t need others in order to be complete.

The external part of the rectification for the sin is to feel lacking without another, but the inner layer of the solution is for a person to realize that he needs to become a tool that reveals beginnings. Soon, we will explain what this means.

The truth is that the concept of damaging the Bris was already existent as soon as Chavah’s body was separated from Adam’s; this already reflected a kind of separation between man and woman, in which man thinks that he doesn’t need woman for completion. Once Adam became separated from her, the idea of damaging the Bris became possible. It was the idea that it is possible for husband to be complete without his wife.

When one damages his thoughts, it is not only that he has misused his mental powers of Chochmah, Binah and Daas. The thoughts are damaged even when one has extraneous thoughts – when he lets his thoughts turn outward to think about things that he doesn’t need to think about. Just like the eyes are supposed to be controlled and they should not be turned outward that much, so is there a concept that the thoughts of a person not turn outward.

Repenting Over The Shame Caused By Sin

According to the Kamarna Rebbe, the 50th Gate of Impurity, which is the lowest level, is the sin of heresy, and it is created through the sin of damaging the Bris. This shows us how the Bris is damaged – but it also shows us at the same time how it can be repaired.

We can ask: Why is spilling seed considered to be the lowest level of impurity? Why can’t it just be viewed like any other desire that a person has?

The deep reason is as follows. Before the sin, Adam and Chavah were unclothed, yet they were not ashamed in their nakedness. As soon as they sinned, they realized they were naked and they grew ashamed; this shows us that the entire concept of shame began after the sin. Before the sin, there was no concept of shame. Why? It is because shame is when a person is concerned of what others think about himself; what is a person is ashamed of? He is ashamed of how he appears outwardly to others. But he is not concerned of how he appears inwardly to others. Before the sin, Adam and Chavah were so pure that they were only concerned of how they looked internally, not outwardly. After the sin, they became concerned with externalities, therefore, they were ashamed of how they appear outwardly to others.

So the pure state of mankind is to be concerned with who really is deep down, and not to be concerned of how he appears outwardly to others. Thus, the way to repair the sin is by returning to the original state of Adam, in there was no shame yet; meaning, for a person to concerned about his internal state, to keep his thoughts private as they are meant to be, and not to reveal them outwardly, not to think into things that he shouldn’t think about.

Thus, it’s not enough for a person to simply be ashamed about damaging the Bris. Although shame over a sin normally atones for all sins, the sin of damaging the Bris requires a higher kind of teshuvah, and shame alone is not enough to rectify it, for it was the sin that brought about shame to the world; the sin requires more than just shame and repentance, then, to rectify. What really needs to be rectified is the very fact that we are ashamed! Because if not for the sin in the first place, we would never know what shame is.

Of course, this does not mean chas v’shalom that one should harden himself and not feel bad after he sins. It means that a person has to reach an inner place in himself in which he returns to the state of before the sin, in which there was no shame yet, because then, when man was entirely pure, he was not concerned of anything external or outward!

When a person’s thoughts think about things that he shouldn’t think about, he is turning his thoughts outward, and this can lead chas v’shalom to eventually damaging the Bris. Our avodah during Shovavim is to return to our source, that even our power of teshuvah should be returned to its source.

During the Ten Days of Repentance, we say in Selichos that “If one’s heart understands and he repents, he will be healed”, meaning, if one is ashamed because of his sins and he repents, his teshuvah is valid. However, the teshuvah we do during Shovavim is a different concept of teshuvah than the usual kind of teshuvah. Shovavim comes after the Ten Days of Repentance, because the sin of damaging the Bris needs its own rectification and thus it cannot be covered by repenting during the Ten Days of Repentance. It is because teshuvah alone does not rectify damaging the Bris [as the Zohar states].

But that doesn’t mean that a person shouldn’t feel ashamed about damaging the Bris. Of course a person should feel ashamed and do teshuvah about it! But it is just that after he does that, he should then do a deeper kind of teshuvah – he should do teshuvah over the very fact that he has shame as a result of the sin; he should do teshuvah over the fact that he allowed his thoughts to be turned outward, that he allowed himself to be involved with the external and left the inner world of his thoughts.

Of course, now that we live after the sin, our initial nature is to seek what’s outside of us. But our avodah is to return ourselves to the original state of mankind before the sin, and to describe this in deeper terms, it’s referring to the power of emunah. Emunah helps a person stay in his proper place, where he will never feel a desire to go outward from himself.

Thus, the first way to rectify the sin of damaging the Bris (spilling human seed) is through rectifying our thoughts, and this means to return our thoughts to their source – that we should keep our thoughts inward, and not let them roam outward.

Private (Intimate) Matters Should Be Kept Private

The Chida[8] and others write that if someone reveals secrets to others when he wasn’t supposed to, he will end up sinning with damaging the Bris. This is because he turned outwardly when he should have remained inward. A secret should only be revealed to one who is modest, because he will know how to protect the secret.

When a person lets his thoughts roam around to explore thoughts that are forbidden or extraneous, that is the first root of what leads to damaging the Bris. But it also includes not to speak about private matters with others.

“Matters of the heart are not revealed to the mouth”[9], meaning, inner and private matters should not be revealed outwardly by the mouth to others. When a Bris [the covenant of marriage between man and woman] remains private between them and it is not spoken about to others, it remains as a protected covenant, as long as it is not spoken about through the mouth [to others].

This is what it means to have Kedushas HaBris, to keep the holiness of the Bris Kodesh: to protect the private nature of the Bris [the covenant of marriage between husband and wife]. Holiness means to conduct one’s private affairs in a hidden manner, in a dark room, privately, and it should be kept hidden and protected – never spoken about with others.

This is the first rectification of repairing the Bris Kodesh. May Hashem help us be able to act upon it practically.[10]

[1] Arizal: shaar ruach hakodesh: tikkun 27; further discussed in Levush, Magen Avraham, Beer Heitiv, and Pri Megadim to Orach Chaim: 685

[2] Rav Chaim Vital in Shaar Ruach HaKodesh (Arizal), ibid.

[3] This will be discussed b’ezras Hashem in Shovavaim #005 – Repairing Lust

[4] See Shovavim #04, Shovavim Today

[5] Shovavim #003

[6] Shovavim #006

[7] Shaar HaPesukim, Yechezkel

[8] Avodas HaKodesh: Tziporen HaShamir: 7: 113

[9] Koheles Rabbah 12:1

[10] Editor’s Summary: In the beginning of the chapter, it was stated that we have a two-fold avodah in repairing our damaged thoughts. The first part is to protect our private thoughts; this includes two aspects, 1)Not to think about forbidden things, which is obvious; 2)Not to reveal our private matters to others. The second part of the rectification was that when we do need to reveal our thoughts to others, they must be revealed properly; now it has been explained at the end of the chapter to mean that matters of privacy should only be revealed to someone who is modest who won’t tell it to others.

My Skirt is My Korban Todah

Today I’m wearing a new skirt. That isn’t really enough of a subject for a column except that this particular skirt is long, falling well below my knees, midcalf. Rather than slinky, it’s got substance, wide flaring pleats and in this age of impossibly flimsy ladies wear, a real honest to goodness lining.

My fashionable self would call it retro, something that might have been worn on the Vassar campus in the fifties, but that isn’t why I bought it. I bought it because its tsniusdig, Glatt Kosher 100 per cent okay according to all Rabbinical opinions.

This skirt is my Korban Todah (thankfulness offering), my own way of saying thank you to the Ribono Shel Olom for certain favors He’s done for me. I’ve been told, that tsnius is the ultimate women’s mitzvah, the point of her ultimate testing. Frankly, it hasn’t been my strong point. Ever since I ditched my blue jeans back in the mid eighties, I’ve been at war with myself, over my image about how I want to look. Tsniusdig, yes, of course, but not overly so because that would be frumpy, frumak, Farchnyucked, Yachne.

For years, I walked on a tightrope between the two, until now buying clothes that were good enough, just barely kosher, not kosher lemehadrin. Why? I didn’t buy foods with dubious hechsherim. Why was I letting myself be so sloppy with this. It just didn’t make a lot of sense to let a few inches of fabric come between me and the Ribono Shel Olom.

Today I put the skirt on for the very first time, as is. There was no need for alterations because it was perfect as is and now I’m wearing it. It fits nicely. No reason why tsniusdig can’t mean pretty but so far nobody has noticed, not my husband until I pointed it out to him, not my next door neighbor who came by to borrow an electric pump, not my upstairs neighbor, and not the young mother of my son’s classmate whom I passed as she was pushing her baby carriage down the block. Not anyone I met at the grocery store either. Not at the vegetable bins, the canned goods section, the dairy case. As the matter stands, no one in my 100 per cent orthodox neighborhood has seen fit to compliment me on my brand new 100 per cent tsniusdig skirt.

And I desperately want somebody to say something nice. This is a major step in my life— as big as a beginning BT walking away from a Big Mac and I want it to be acknowledged. Not with fireworks, a parade, a hand coming down from heaven. All I need is a good word and a smile.

The silence makes me worry. Maybe my fashion sense was off. Maybe the skirt is really ugly. Maybe I should skip this frummy stuff and go back to my old way. This is the sitra achra, I tell myself, that undertow of negativity that bubbles up whenever we undertake some small improvement. I give myself a pep talk.

Yes, you are doing the right thing standing up for modesty in a world where Britany Spears and Beyonce rule. No you don’t need a 100 gun salute or a Congressional Medal of Honor or a Nobel Prize and besides you are getting one in shomayim.

But deep down, I still don’t believe it. I still want someone to notice me. Oh Hashem, please I beg, A compliment. A good word.

Toward evening I meet my friend Pearly. Pearly with her nose ring and tattoo, (hennaed and temporary, thank G-d, not the permanent assur kind). Pearly who spends her Shabboses walking her dogs in the park.

“New skirt,” she asks. “C’mon then. Give it a turn. Very nice,” and then she smiles.

Originally Posted Jun 25, 2008

The Candles and the Tree

It was the December after my ninth birthday. A menorah rested on the bookshelf over the television console. Across the room, beside the fireplace, the lights of a tree twinkled red and green and blue. I was standing next to my mother as she held a candle in her hand. My father wasn’t there. He wasn’t into these things.

My mother lit the lone candle, ushering in the first night of Chanukah. She didn’t recite the blessing. She didn’t know it. I remember watching the wick catch, watching the flame grow bright, and asking myself, “Now what happens?”

“We light the candles for eight nights because the oil burned for eight days,” my mother had told me. What oil? I wondered. But something about her brief explanation convinced me not to ask. Maybe she didn’t know, either.

A year or two later, at my suggestion, the menorah had disappeared and only the tree remained. Waiting for the morning of December 25th when all the presents could be opened at once seemed far more dramatic than diluting the experience over a week, especially when those wrapped boxes mysteriously appeared under the tree day after day over the course of almost a whole month. Chanukah just couldn’t compete.

Only two decades later did I come to appreciate how much my own experience had truly been a Chanukah story.

When I left home for college I left behind the tree with the menorah. December 25th had become as irrelevant as Santa Claus, and I preferred an envelope with a check to wrapped presents that would most likely be returned for credit. I eagerly adopted the ambivalent agnosticism of so many of my peers, celebrating dormitory weekends by emptying six-packs rather than observing commercialized annual holidays with empty rituals.

Sometime toward the end of my university career I found myself attracted to Zen. Not in the traditional style, with its practices of discipline and self-mastery, but the pop-spiritual variety learned from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and similar modern scriptures.

Aligning myself with the spiritual energy of the universe became my goal. I wanted to choose good over evil because ultimately that brought good karma and spiritual contentment. Surely, this was the road to Truth.

But we all know which road is paved with good intentions. As sincere as I may have been in my aspiration to travel the road to truth, I found with annoying frequency that when my desire to do good clashed with my desire to indulge evil, good threw in the towel at least two times out of three. Forced to take stock of myself, I had to concede that, for all its high-sounding ideals, a spiritual discipline that produced no moral discipline wasn’t worth its mantras.

I hadn’t developed much discipline in my academic life, either. Oh, my grades were good enough, but four years studying English literature and writing had left me with neither gainful employment nor vocational direction. It was 1983, a decade late to join the hippies or beatniks, but that didn’t stop me from swinging a backpack over my shoulders and hitchhiking across the country. If I hadn’t found Truth in the ivory tower, perhaps I might find it in the heart of America.

Sixth months crisscrossing the country brought me no closer to Truth, but it did whet my wanderlust, and I soon boarded a flight across the Atlantic to continue my journey through Europe, after which Africa, Asia, and Australia lay upon my horizon.

Half a year in Europe ended with a short hop across the Mediterranean to Israel, where I sought the classical Jewish experience of volunteering to pick oranges on a kibbutz. But it was December, with little agricultural work to be done; moreover, the dollar was strong, resulting in some 9 million American tourists in Europe, many of them draining south into Israel as winter weather set in. I found the kibbutz placement office blocked by a line of 20-somethings camped out like they were waiting for Rolling Stones tickets, oblivious to signs screaming, NO PLACEMENTS BEFORE JANUARY.

Desperate for a break from the stresses of travel on a shoestring, I cast about for some way of imposing routine upon my life before departing for Africa and, somehow, found myself invited to attend yeshiva.

Yeshiva? The word was unfamiliar, but the offer of a bed, hot meals, and a daily schedule of classes proved irresistible. It was two weeks before Chanukah, and I would finally learn about the secrets of the menorah and the miracle of the oil.

Although a period of peaceful coexistence followed Alexander the Great’s occupation of the Land of Israel, it didn’t take long after Alexander’s death before the Greeks began to feel first discomfited and later threatened by their Jewish subjects and the Judaism they practiced. Greek philosophy recognized man as the pinnacle of creation, perfect in his accomplishments, answerable to no one but himself. Greek mythology embraced a pantheon of gods characterized by caprice and selfishness, by lust and vengeance, thereby sanctioning similar behavior among men. How offended must the Greeks have been by a Jewish society devoted to self-perfection through submission to a divine code of moral conduct.

When they could no longer tolerate the Jewish threat to their ideals, the Greeks contrived to destroy Jewish ideology. Whereas their predecessors, Babylon and Persia, had employed violent oppression, the Greeks plotted with far greater subtlety: in place of physical violence or outright prohibition of Torah observance, they originally banned only three practices: Shabbos, bris milah, and Rosh Chodesh, the sanctification of the new month.

The Sabbath testifies to the divine nature of the universe; without this weekly reminder, we easily loose touch with and ultimately forget our relationship with our Creator. Bris milah is the sign of our higher calling, reminding us that we can control our physical impulses rather than allowing them to control us, that each of us is a work-in-progress striving toward self-completion and self-perfection. Rosh Chodesh is the ceremony that fixes the calendar and imbues the Jewish holidays with an intrinsic holiness. Without Rosh Chodesh, placement of the holidays would become arbitrary, leeching all meaning from them the way American Federal holidays have lost all substance in the eyes of most Americans.

The Jews refused to submit, and in the end the Greeks resorted to more oppressive decrees and, ultimately, to violence. But their plan had been sound: had they succeeded in stopping our adherence to these three precepts, they would have succeeded also in reducing Torah observance to an empty ritual, one that might have continued on for generations, but would have quickly become bereft of all meaning and spiritual significance. For this reason, the observance of Chanukah always includes one Shabbos, always passes through Rosh Chodesh, and is eight days long as a remembrance of the bris, the covenant between the Jew and his Creator.

Chanukah celebrates victory not only over our Greek oppressors, but also over the Hellenists, those Jews who promoted a new synchronism of Judaism, wherein they hoped to intermingle Jewish practice with that which they found most attractive in Greek culture. The Maccabees recognized the total incompatibility between Greek ideology and Jewish philosophy, and that ultimately one would have to prevail over the other. Without staunch defenders fighting for Jewish identity, the flame of Judaism would inevitably be extinguished and only the tree of foreign culture would remain.

Despite the victory of the Maccabees, the Greeks did not disappear. To this day they persist in their cultural assault against the values of Jewish tradition. The nine year old boy in America, or Britain, or even in Israel, who looks at the Chanukah candles and wonders what they mean, who sees no difference between the flames of the menorah and the twinkling lights of the tree, testifies to the victory of the Greeks.

But not every child has forgotten the lights. The rekindling of the menorah each year reminds us that the torch of Jewish tradition continues to illuminate generation after generation and dispel the darkness of apathy and assimilation. However much the ideological descendants of the Greeks strive to extinguish the lights, the eternal flame that burns within the soul of the Jewish people still shines on and on.

In my own observance of Chanukah, I rejoice that my own children are growing up not only with the lights of the menorah, but with a growing understanding of what they mean. I’m grateful that I can give them what my parents were unable to give me: self-knowledge, the greatest weapon against cultural extinction. They have always known that a tree beside the fireplace in December is not part of their world; as they grow older, they come to appreciate why it is not, and why a menorah is.

Through the generations and across the world, our people have successfully adapted to living as guests among disparate societies, but only by retaining a strong sense of our history, the values of our heritage, and a familiarity with the culture that keeps our sense of identity alive and vibrant. Compromise these, and the Jew, together with his Judaism, will surely vanish. Preserve them, and we guarantee that the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greeks will be renewed in every generation as a victory of the Jewish people over assimilation.

Originally Posted on Dec 23rd, 2007

A Hellenist Left Standing

It was the twenty-fifth of December,
And when she closes her eyes she remembers,
Just how it was.

A Jewish girl from Queens,
Had fulfilled her secret dreams,
Decorating that bright, forbidden tree.
A Jewish girl from Queens,
Had fulfilled her secret dreams.
She helped hang tinsel merrily.

Her boyfriend’s family,
Was friendly as could be.
They had fun watching her delight.
Her boyfriend’s family,
Was friendly as could be.
By the fireplace they sang carols that night.

Then they piled into the car.
It wasn’t very far.
Greetings called to those they’d pass.
Then they piled into the car.
It wasn’t very far.
Each year the family went to Midnight Mass.

But there in a church pew,
She didn’t know what to do,
As everyone else bent down to kneel.
But there in a church pew,
She didn’t know what to do.
In those moments was her future sealed?

Alone, trembling, she stood,
Still uncertain if she should.
What stopped her from kneeling in that place?
Alone, trembling, she stood,
Still uncertain if she should.
The word “Jew” was stamped on her face.

The twenty-fifth makes her remember,
Because it’s Kislev – not December.
She almost fell, like Hellenists of old.
The twenty-fifth makes her remember,
Because it’s Kislev – not December.
Once she, too, chose tinsel, not the gold.

So radiant – hidden away.
A golden light, still pure today.
Flashing bulbs can’t come near its glow.

So radiant – hidden away.
A golden light, still pure today.
Her Jewish home shines with treasures she didn’t know.

For now many years have passed.
Each Chanukahs spins by so fast.
And as grandchildren light, my past becomes less real.
For now many years have passed.
Each Chanukah spins by so fast.
Standing by lights, I whisper thanks I didn’t kneel.

Bracha Goetz is the Harvard-educated author of eleven children’s books, including Aliza in MitzvahLand, What Do You See in Your Neighborhood? and The Invisible Book. To enjoy Bracha’s presentations, you’re welcome to email bgoetzster@gmail.com.

Wisdom, Torah and Mussar

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Start preparing for Chanukah with some great Drashos

The Nefesh HaChaim (Gate IV: Chapter 1) writes that as the generations continued, the yetzer hora devised ways to fight Klal Yisrael’s study of Torah, and thus the idea formed of learning Torah for the sake of pilpul (give-and-take analysis) alone, with no involvement of yirah (fear of Hashem).

The yetzer hora fights our power of Torah study, and so did the Greek exile fight the Torah. Greek wisdom and philosophy was at war with the wisdom of the Torah.

Our Sages viewed Greek wisdom as being a wisdom that is entirely focused on the physical body and nature, with no trace of spirituality to it. There was also another way of understanding the difference between the Torah’s wisdom and Greek wisdom. Greek wisdom is entirely intellectual-based, with no mention of the “heart”. Regarding the Torah, “fear of Hashem is wisdom”, the Torah is a wisdom that requires fear of Hashem, whereas Greek wisdom is intellect alone.

When the Nefesh HaChaim says that the yetzer hora devised ways to fight against Klal Yisrael’s study of Torah, it is referring to the evil force of impurity that is “Yavan” (the Greek exile and its philosophy). When a person learns Torah, he is definitely not learning a wisdom that is focused on the physical body and nature, but it’s possible that he has Greek attitude towards the wisdom of Torah! In fact, he might have the exact thinking of Greek philosophy even as he’s learning Torah.

The yetzer hora has many different ways of how it fights Klal Yisrael. Sometimes it causes some people in Klal Yisrael to abandon Torah study by causing them to engage in the study of nature and the body. Another way it fights Klal Yisrael is through removing “yirah” (fear of Hashem) from the picture, where the fiery love for Torah is extinguished in their hearts.

The depth of this struggle throughout the generations, and in our generation especially, is that the Greek attitude has penetrated into the “tents of Shem” (the beis midrash), in the sense that a person today can be sitting and learning Torah in the beis midrash yet he has a ‘Greek perspective’ within his very learning. To an onlooker, it would seem that there is no difference between a person learning with a Greek perspective with a person who doesn’t. The difference cannot be discerned by the eye.

Those who study other wisdoms outside of the Torah, such as those who study nature and the body, are an obvious example of Greek influence. But even someone who merits to sit and learn in the beis midrash might be affected by the same problem: his Torah learning has become exiled by the evil inclination, whose purpose is to fight against the Torah.

When a person does not clarify to himself what his connection to Torah is [as we have begun to explain in the previous chapters], he might find out after 120 years when he goes up to Heaven that all of his Torah learning was with a Greek perspective.

There is a story told by Rav Shalom Shwadron of his grandfather, the Maharsham, which can make anyone shudder. The Maharsham fell ill, and he dreamt that he ascended to Heaven, where he stood in front of the Heavenly Court. They weighed out his merits and his sins. An announcement went out in praise of the Maharsham’s merits of Torah learning and how awesome it was. Then an angel came and declared that all of his Torah is not called “Torah”; it came and blew into his mouth, and all of the words of Torah were removed from him, as if the words had never been there before! It was all removed from him. In the end, the angel returned all the words of Torah to the Maharsham, for it said, “In the generation you live in, your words of Torah can be called ‘Torah’.”

Anyone familiar with the works of the Maharsham knows that his Torah is awesome. He was one of the greatest leaders of his generation and you can see his greatness in his sefarim. Yet the Maharsham testified about himself that in the Heavenly Court, they instantly removed all his Torah.

If someone searches for truth and he hears the above story, how can he not suspect that the same thing can happen to him? Of course, in the end of the story, the angel considered the Maharsham’s Torah to be Torah. But it is still shuddering to think that there was even such a possibility. How could such a thing be possible? We aren’t discussing here a great person such as the Maharsham. We are talking about someone on our own spiritual level. How is it possible that a person’s Torah is not considered to be real “Torah” in Heaven…?

If a person never clarified his connection to Torah – the external layer of the connection, and certainly the inner layer of the connection – he might think that he has love for Torah and that he learns a lot, but he might have a very mistaken attitude towards learning, for he has never clarified what connects him to Torah.

This is true even if he has learned much Torah both in quantity and quality; with understanding; with clarity; with chiddushim; with knowing the Halachic conclusions of each sugya (each on his own level); if he has not clarified the refined points of what connects him to the Torah he learns, then there is only a minimal connection to Torah he has (based on one of the qualities above), and he is missing much of what is required in a connection to Torah.

A person doesn’t know what’s missing from his learning, because he never makes this reflection. He thinks that everything’s great simply because he is sitting and learning Torah from morning to night; after all, he merits understanding in his learning, he even has chiddushim, he has clarity in what he is learning, he is becoming knowledgeable in Torah – each person can say this on his own level.

Yet the story of the Maharsham proves that one’s Torah learning is considered to be like nothing in Heaven. This is when one doesn’t clarify what is connecting him to Torah and he isn’t aware of what deeply connects him to it.

One who clarifies what connects him to his Torah learning is aware of what exactly connects him to the Torah and which parts he isn’t yet connected to. He is aware of which areas in his learning are weak, which areas need improvement, which parts he needs to decrease and which parts he needs to increase, which parts he needs more connection to. One must honestly examine himself and take apart his connection to Torah and see which parts he is connected to and which parts are missing from his connection.

When a person ascends to Heaven after 120, the first question he is asked is, “Did you set aside times for Torah study?” That will be the first part of the examination. But after this the question will go deeper: During the times he learned Torah, on what level did he learn it on? How deep was his connection to it?

We must know that we can’t run away from this examination. Either a person clarifies it as he is here on this world, or it is told to him when he gets to the World of Truth – where it will be too late to do anything.

Obviously, anyone who is sitting and learning Torah all day in the beis midrash is someone who wants to make progress in his Torah learning. But one must be aware of which parts are necessary in the connection to Torah learning. Through this, one’s connection to Torah will grow deeper and it will have more quality to it.

The evil spiritual force known as ‘kelipas Yavan’, the “Greek perspective”, is essentially the attitude that a person can learn Torah in a superficial manner, where he thinks that he is gaining wisdom and that he is understanding it, and the person thinks that everything here is fine. But with this attitude towards learning, a person will come upstairs after 120 and it will be shown to him that his entire way of life was spent incorrectly; that instead of being of those who sat in the beis midrash, he was considered to be of those who pursue other places, chas v’shalom. Although he did not actually run after frivolous things during his lifetime, he will be shown that his perspective is that not that far from those who do not consider Torah to be the main pursuit of life.

To emphasize again, each person will have to undergo this assessment of his Torah learning. The only question is if it will happen during a person’s lifetime – when he uses his free will to do so – or if it will be made in Heaven, where it will be too late. A person on this world has the free will to choose to make this examination on himself: To see how much he is exerting himself in Torah, how connected he is to Torah, how much clarity he has in his learning, etc.

If a person does not make this reflection, he will simply live a carefree life, thinking that all is well and that he just has to keep increasing his time for learning and that he should simply keep exerting himself more and more. Although this is also true, a person must not think that this is all he needs in his connection to Torah. There is much more to the connection to Torah that a person needs, and every person will have to see it at some point; whether on this world, or on the next.

If a person didn’t assess his connection to Torah on this world, he will be shown in the next world all that he was supposed to reach – which was a simple truth that he could have reached even as he lived on this world. If one realizes as he is on this world that improvement is needed in his connection to Torah learning, then he has a chance of changing, because he still has free will. But if a person waits until the next world to see the truth, there, it is too late to do anything, and there he will remain with his very minimal level of connection to Torah.

***

The Nefesh HaChaim explains that the study of mussar began because the great leaders were seeing that much was missing from their Torah learning. The Nefesh HaChaim calls them the ‘eyes of the congregation.” In other words, these great people had the ‘eyes’ to see what was missing. They had a spiritual lens that could see beyond the external layer of things.

When a person sees the world through a superficial lens, he does not see what the problems are. He walks into a beis midrash full of people learning Torah, and he might feel, “Ah, “praiseworthy are the eyes that have seen this.” But if he would have more inner vision, he would instantly see what is missing from the beis midrash. (To see and fix the problem, though, he would have to be on a very high spiritual level).

The Nefesh HaChaim says that the leaders of the generation who founded the study of mussar were the ‘eyes of the congregation.’ They had ‘eyes’ that could see things which others couldn’t see. They could see subtleties; they possessed the discerning eye of a Torah scholar, who sees beyond the superficial layer of things.

In recent generations, there has been a great increase of Torah study. But those with inner vision can see that a deep connection to Torah is missing, and they see a whole different reality than how others see it. The leaders of the generation, who are called ‘eyes of the generation’, see this painful reality. But each person on his own level can gain some inner vision and he can sense that there is much that is missing from his connection to Torah.

***

The Nefesh HaChaim continues that those who noticed what was missing from Torah study wrote sefarim that explain yirah (fear of Hashem) to redirect the hearts of the nation, so that they could rededicate themselves to the study of Torah and to serving Hashem, with pure fear of Heaven.

A superficial reading of these words of the Nefesh HaChaim seems to imply that they realized that their Torah learning was causing them to be in lacking in yirah and in avodas Hashem, thus the leaders of the past wrote sefarim that explain yirah, in order to gain back their yirah.

However, that is not what he writes. The Nefesh HaChaim is saying [in conjunction with the earlier paragraphs] that because their Torah learning was lacking in yirah, because it was lacking with a “burning love for Torah” as he puts it, they felt that their very Torah learning was lacking. [Thus they weren’t just missing yirah; they were missing Torah, because they were missing yirah in their Torah].

Thus, when they wrote sefarim about yirah, they didn’t do this just so they could gain yirah; they did it so that their Torah learning could become improved in this way. For it is written, “Fear of G-d is wisdom.”

***

They didn’t want to just improve their fear of Heaven; they wanted to gain back a fiery love for Torah which had gone missing from them.

From a superficial perspective, it appears to be that mussar sefarim are here to explain to us merely how to better our actions, how to improve our middos, how to improve ourselves, etc. This is all true, but there is a much deeper purpose of the mussar sefarim. It is because “Fear of G-d is wisdom.” When a person learns mussar in the true way, not superficially but with in-depth analysis, he reveals a deeper connection to Hashem and to Torah. He gains a clearer perspective on life, thus the way he relates to Hashem and to his Torah learning becomes totally different.

This is apparent from the words of the Nefesh HaChaim, that the reason why the leaders wrote mussar sefarim was “to straighten out… and fix the breaches” that had been made. They were trying to help us become more precise and exact in our way of living. They were trying to fix the ‘breaches’, reminiscent of the ‘13 breaches’ which the Greeks had made in the Beis HaMikdash, which symbolizes the negative Greek influences on our Torah learning. Thus the purpose of the study of mussar was essentially so that we would clarify our connection to our Torah learning and form a deep connection to Torah; to get it back to the way it used to be before all the breaches came along.

***

The Nefesh HaChaim writes that any sensible person understands that those who founded the study of mussar never intended for people to abandon Torah study and to learn mussar all day. Their entire intention was so that people would improve their Torah learning and learn Torah all day; to learn the Written Torah, the Oral Torah, and the many halachos of the Torah. They just wanted people to add learn it with fear of Heaven.

How indeed did people then come to make such a mistake? It was because people thought that the study of mussar\yirah was solely for the sake of knowing what yirah is and what avodas Hashem is. That is how they came to neglect Torah study and to instead involve themselves with only mussar.

The true perspective is that the mussar sefarim, which explain how to have yirah, are really coming to explain our connection to Hashem, and precisely through the study of His Torah. The study of yirah was not meant to imply that people should stop learning Torah in favor of learning about yirah; for the whole purpose of yirah was to deepen our connection to the study of Torah. “Fear of Hashem is wisdom” – the purpose of studying about yirah was to reconnect us to the subtle and refined wisdom of the Torah.

This explains the difference between those who serve Hashem superficially with those who really serve Him. Those who truly serve Hashem are people who use all of their spirituality to deepen their connection to Torah learning, more and more. By contrast, someone who improves his ‘Avodas Hashem’ without being focused on improving his Torah learning, will slowly drift off from Torah study, preferring instead to spend most of his time in the study of mussar and yirah. He erroneously thinks that only in that area can he feel a burning love for Torah.

When a person understands what Torah is all about and what mussar is about, he understands that mussar is coming to explain the subtleties of the Torah’s wisdom, and that this what ultimately connects a person to Hashem and His Torah. When this is the perspective, a person understands that the study of mussar is not meant to weaken our study of Torah; it is rather the ingredient that helps our Torah learning thrive. The study of mussar comes to analyze the subtleties of the human soul, which in turn helps our connection to Torah to be more precise and exact.

***

May Hashem give us the strength that kelipas Yavan (the Greek perspective) should be erased from the world in general, and on a specific level, from those who sit here in the beis midrash; that our Torah learning should not be a mere superficial and purely intellectual kind of study that resembles the study of Greek wisdoms. Rather, we should have a connection to our Torah learning which should stem from both the use of our mind and heart. Our minds should be heavily immersed in Torah, and our hearts need to burn with fiery love for it. Then our Torah learning can resemble the Menorah in its purity, in which the flame would rise on its own after it was lit; our souls should become enflamed with a burning love for Torah and thereby become exalted, going higher and higher.

Modern Orthodox and Modern Orthodox Baalei Teshuva Research Reports

Nishma Research recently (November 2019) published the results of an Online Survey of 1,817 Modern Orthodox American Jews of which 744 are “Baalei Teshuvah”. They released two reports which you can download at http://nishmaresearch.com/social-research.html.

Here are some of the key findings from https://www.jewishdatabank.org/databank/search-results/study/1078:

Sponsors: The Micah Foundation
Principal Investigators: Mark Trencher, Nishma Research
Study Date: 2019
Key Findings:
In 2017, Nishma Research reported the results of an online survey of over 3,900 Modern Orthodox Jewish respondents in America. Reports, slide shows, the questionnaire, qualitative verbatim comments to open-ended questions and the quantitative data file from the study are available at the DataBank’s 2017 study page.

Prior to that, in 2016, Nishma had issued a ground-breaking report on “those who left Orthodoxy,” including a substantial number who had left Modern Orthodoxy.

2019 Surveys of U.S. Modern Orthodox Jews

In November 2019, Mark Trencher (Founder and President of Nishma Research) published two extraordinarily informative and accessible reports which continued the research firm’s studies of Modern Orthodox Jews in America.

(1) The first report – “The Successes, Challenges and Future of American Modern Orthodoxy” – focused primarily on all 1,817 survey respondents who were Modern Orthodox Jews living in the United States, although appendix materials also compared the U.S. Modern Orthodox with another 130 Israeli-living Modern Orthodox and 174 U.S. charedi (often called the “ultra-Orthodox” in newspaper discussions, etc.).

(2) The second report – “The Journeys and Experiences of Baalei Teshuvah” focused only on the 744 US baalei teshuvah respondents (Jews who were not “frum from birth,” but who began to identify as Orthodox at or about bar/bat mitizvah age, or later in life); the baalei teshuvah respondents were also included in the 1,817 Modern Orthodox U.S. Jews who were discussed in the comprehensive Modern Orthodox report.

***

Both reports (individually and in tandem) provide fascinating portraits of Modern Orthodox Judaism in the United States; each includes a Summary of Key Findings, expanded text and tabular/graphic analyses of quantitative survey results, extensive verbatim comments to open-ended questions which are as important as the quantitative data to an understanding of Modern Orthodoxy, and the survey questionnaire (also available as a stand-alone PDF on this study page).

The comprehensive report on Modern Orthodoxy also includes summaries of the results of the 2017 survey and an earlier Nishma “pioneering study of those who have left the Orthodox community,” as well as copies of several articles on Modern Orthodoxy inspired by the earlier surveys.

***

Key Findings

The combination of quantitative and qualitative data in the two reports makes it important for DataBank users to review both reports, including the verbatim quotes. Only a few study findings are noted below:

• The “…vast majority (85%) of Modern Orthodox respondents say their Orthodox observance is an important part of their lives…”

• “Modern Orthodoxy’s worldview involves melding Jewish observance with secular knowledge and participation, and 88% experience positive interactions between their Orthodoxy and secular society – most often simply by taking advantage of opportunities to create a positive impression with non-Orthodox or non-Jews.”

“However, interaction with secular society can create conflict, with 88% of respondents having experienced such a conflict. While half (51%) stand firm in their religious practice, a substantial minority (37%) compromise at some level – most often in areas of kashrut and Shabbat.”

• “…Modern Orthodox Jews are far from uniform in their beliefs, attitudes and practices. While 42% say they are ‘centrist,’ a majority say they are either to the left or to the right, and almost one in five (18%) says they are primarily ‘Shabbat Orthodox.'”

“…A majority of respondents are concerned that too many Modern Orthodox communal leaders come from right-leaning segments.”

• “More than one-third (34%) believe there is no longer a single, cohesive Modern Orthodox community. Modern Orthodoxy should acknowledge this and would perhaps be better off splitting into separate camps.”

• 55% of respondents agree that their Orthodox community school systems are successful in creating committed Orthodox Jews, while 34% disagree. “But the historic near-universal attendance at Orthodox Jewish day schools seems to be slipping, as 31% of respondents say they might consider public school as an option …” for their children.

Baalei Teshuvah

• 42% of all Modern Orthodox American Jews are baalei teshuvah.

• The median age at which they started to identify as Orthodox is 23.5

• Nearly half (49%) of baalei teshuvah had previously been “…Conservative or Orthoprax, followed by the non-denominational – traditional, cultural, ethnic Jewish, or ‘just Jewish’ (23%).”

• “The top reasons baalei teshuvah give for why they became Orthodox are intellectual attraction or curiosity (53%), seeing Orthodoxy as more authentically Jewish (52%) and more truthful (35%), and connection to Jewish roots and heritage (36%).”

• “Among those who cited kiruv (outreach) as an influence, Chabad Lubavitch (42%) and “a rabbi or other mentor/ personality” (38%) are most often cited. However, while kiruv is effective in influencing people to become Orthodox, only 22% rate their “follow-up” as excellent.”

• “Men are more often drawn by kiruv and intellectual attraction; women by spirituality and the community.”

• Compared to those “frum from birth,” “Baalei teshuvah tend to be more liberal, have more ‘observance diversity’ in their households, and their Orthodoxy is a slightly less important part of who they are overall.”

• “By a very wide margin, the top challenge baalei teshuvah faced in becoming Orthodox was in their relationships with their parents and family (37%). These relationships were far more challenging than learning and knowing what to do as an Orthodox observant person (cited by 16%), social aspects and friends (13%), and kashrut (12%).”

• “The vast majority of baalei teshuvah (83%) say that they have ‘held onto’ things from their pre-Orthodox life, which are not commonly found in the Orthodox world, most often citing left-of center political views (20%) and socially liberal views (12%).”

• “Between half and two-thirds of baalei teshuvah are fully or mostly comfortable with davening (65%), Jewish learning (53%), and day-to-day Orthodox living (65%). However, their comfort levels are significantly lower than those of FFBs for all of these aspects of Orthodox life.”

• “Baalei teshuvah’s levels of religiosity continue to change. Half say they continued to become more observant over time, as they have learned more and as they gradually moved toward greater observance. But one in four says they have become less observant and gradually more lenient.”

Sample:
“Seeking to reach the broad community of Modern Orthodox (MO) Jews, the study contacted synagogues, reaching their rabbis and members via communication through the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). As shul affiliation is virtually universal among the Orthodox, we see this as an effective way to reach the community.”

“We received 2,629 responses, of whom 1,817 self-identified … as Modern Orthodox residing in the US, and the findings presented in this report are primarily based on these respondents. Some had self-identified as charedi, Conservative and other non-Modern Orthodox, even though they are members of shuls whose rabbis are RCA members, and appendices include data for 174 US-based charedi Jews and 130 Israel-based Modern Orthodox Jews.”

“Among the respondents were 888 whom we classified as baalei teshuvah (having become Orthodox at bar/bat mitzvah age or later…744 are Modern Orthodox in the U.S.”

Sample Notes:
“…The extent to which these samples are representative of the overall populations from which they derive is not knowable, as no demographic profile of the community exists. Such profiles exist for larger denominations of American Jewry (via community, Federation, and Pew studies), but Orthodoxy – and particularly the Modern Orthodox and baalei teshuvah – are quite small segments…”

The online survey was seen as the only feasible strategy for large-scale data collection among the Orthodox; other methods would have been prohibitively expensive. For example, “Pew conducted 71,000 phone calls and completed their survey with only 134 synagogue-attending Modern Orthodox Jews.”

Compared with the Pew sample, “…our respondents appear roughly equivalent with respect to regional distribution, median age, liberal/conservative political balance, and the percentage that are baalei teshuvah. Our sample appears to report somewhat higher levels of education and income.”

However, the report noted that: “As is true for all surveys, sample respondents should be viewed with appropriate understanding and caution.”

Sample Size: 1,817 Modern Orthodox American Jews; 744 are “Baalei Teshuvah”

Chessed, Gratitude and Love

In his sefer “Getting to Know Your Soul”, Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh teaches us some important lessons about Chessed:

“Love has three layers in the soul. The outermost layer is chessed (kindness), the middle layer is ahavah (love), and the innermost layer is echad (unity)…The real significance of chessed is its power of unifying the world into one cohesive unit…An act of giving is not chessed unless there is some love in it, either an expression of existing love, or the intent to foster love.”

Rav Shwartz also points out that every act has both lishma (pure) and lo lishma (alterior) motives. We should focus on the lishma components of our acts to strengthen that component. I think we can add that we should also focus on the lishma components of the acts of others. If we do this, accompanied by a feeling or showing of gratitude, we can build love and create deeper unity between ourselves and our fellow Jews.

I send out the davening times for my daily minyan every two months. It takes about 5 minutes and I usually don’t get a response from any of the recipients, nor do I expect one. However this week, as I was marinating this post in my head, I received a thank you from someone in the minyan. It was nice and I felt the love. I also took it as a sign that the message in this post is on target.

Have a Happy Gratitude Day!

Cross posted on ShulPolitics.com

Thanksgiving and the BT

It’s clear that Thanksgiving is an “issue” for many Baalei Teshuvah. In addition to Neil Harris’ Being Thankful for Thanksgiving, the issue has come up in numerous posts and comments. We have highlighted some of those posts and comments below.


In Can You Really Get Everything You Want at Alice’s Restaurant?
, Rachel Adler sought advice on her first Thanksgiving in someone else’s non-kosher home:

“Thanksgiving, on the other hand, was one of the few holidays that I could spend at home with my family. For the past 10 or so years, we’ve hosted our extended family for Thanksgiving, with our cousins from New Jersey, California, and sometimes even Guatemala coming to the meal. Usually there are over 20 people. This was convenient when I started keeping kosher, since my parents started keeping a kosher house and no one had to make any special arrangements for me… I have a younger cousin, who just got accepted to Washington University in St. Louis, where she’ll be going next year. She’s among the cousins who usually visit us for Thanksgiving. This year, however, her parents want to host Thanksgiving since this is the first time she’s been away from her family and they want her to be able to go home for her first school break. This is understandable, but when my mom told me this yesterday, I asked “What am I going to eat? And what about Shabbat?”… My cousins don’t have a kosher kitchen and, as far as I know, they don’t even know how to keep kosher (besides the basics of no milk and meat) since they, unlike my parents, were never raised keeping kosher… I know that this would be a good opportunity for me to do a kiddush Hashem if I can figure out a way to make this work without causing strife. I really love my cousins. I just have no clue what to do. Any advice?”

Some advice from the comments:

Chaya:

Rachel,

If your aunt is open to you bringing your own food that is what I usually do in these circumstances. In my experience, it is better to discuss this directly with your hosts than have your parents advocate for you. Thanksgiving is usually celebrated Thursday afternoon, right? Could you be with your family Wednesday and Thursday night and then go to an observant family for Shabbat? …I have been doing stuff like this with my family for several years, and I have found that there is usually a way to compromise. I think you are taking a great attitude by thinking of the potential for kiddush Hashem.

Bob Miller:

As an aside, the kosher traveler can now find packaged kosher items in virtually every supermarket, convenience store, and Wal-Mart in the US. La Briute self-heating TV dinners are available in some stores and on-line (check www.labriutemeals.com )

Out of Town:

Thanksgiving can be a difficult holiday for BTs. I know my parents were very offended when I wouldn’t eat the turkey at their house when I started becoming frum. I would definitely agree that you should talk to the hosts in advance and warn them that you will be bringing your own food. Those La Briute meals are pretty good and I think they even have a turkey one. Another option is to either buy or make a meal at home, freeze it, then heat it up at their house. Or, maybe you could volunteer to bring one of the side dishes, that way you will have something to eat that everyone else will eat, then just bring your own turkey or whatever. Good luck!

Ilanit:

I have the same problem as well…

I would first discuss the situation with the appropriate family members. If you are comfortable, discuss the issue with the hosts. Since you love them and I am sure they love you, they will be happy to help come up with a compromise. This is a ‘better’ situation than one where the hosts refuse to compromise at all. I have done this in the past, and I have found it to be extremely helpful as it eliminates surprises and opens the lines of communication and sets expectations. Especially since Thanksgiving is an eating-oriented holiday, no one would want you to be left out of the eating.

Determine what is the most that you can do on your end. Bring a cold salad, plates & utensils, dessert, appetizers, etc. Do the max that you can do. When we went to a non-kosher house for Thanksgiving last year, I brought appetizers, side dishes, and dessert to ensure that we would at least have something to eat!

Include your family in your Shabbat plans. Since it’s also a family-oriented holiday, maybe your relatives would like to ‘do’ Shabbat with you, or whatever. See what their thoughts are. Maybe you can organize something! (which may be a relief for the hostess from all the cooking)

Now may be the time to be creative… It is obvious that you are willing to do that which maintains family harmony while also staying true to yourself. Being honest will help with that. Good luck!

SephardiLady:

Something that is definitely worth doing is really learning about kashrut, the foundations behind the halacha, and the very practical end of kashrut (what must have a heksher and what products don’t need a heksher, what is considered sharp/hot and what is not, steam, kashering burners, ovens, microwaves, bishul, and more).

As it is said, knowledge is power, and with some ingenuity, resources, and knowledge, it is more than possible to create kosher meals in a non-kosher home without upsetting everyone.

Goodluck and enjoy Palo Alto. The frum community there is very nice.

Chava:

Ah – Thanksgiving, the holiday of the BT :) . At least it is for our families.

Neither my, nor my husband have parents with kosher kitchens, yet we have managed to make a totally kosher Thanksgiving meal in their homes. Self cleaning ovens, tin pans, disposable plates and ’silverware’ with maybe a few pots brought in. If your relatives are game, it can be done. This also prevents the issue of ‘why do you have different food’ and ‘what, did I contaminate your food with my fork?’ and so on.

———————————————————————————–

Shayna spoke about how she “lost Thanksgiving” in Painfully Cutting Ties to the Past and the commentors offered support and some insight on the halachic parameters of the holiday.

Thanksgiving was supposed to remain a lifeline with my Before Teshuva world. At first, I stubbornly held on to New Year’s, defiantly rationalizing that we live by the secular calendar, too. But in truth, I’d long been uncomfortable with the idea that we kept our dates by their relation to the death of the Christian deity. (That’s pretty weird for a supposedly secular country.) Halloween was no great loss with the introduction of Purim. And, on Fourth of July, I usually serve my family something sweet and patriotically decorated and take the kids to a quiet spot to watch fireworks.

Then I lost Thanksgiving.

Rabbaim have poskuned that Thanksgiving has non-Jewish roots. Someone unhelpfully provided us with a pamphlet spelling out the problem. And since no one in the kids’ yeshivas does it, and, more importantly, I’ve lost my rebellious spirit in the realization that no matter how much I bristle, the frum way is usually best, after all…we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving either.

And now I feel a loss on that late November Thursday. I miss the politically uncorrect Pilgrims, stuffing, and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Milchig.

Some advice from the comments:

Menachem:

It is by no means a foregone conclusion that Thanksgiving is a “treif” holiday. There was a diversity of opinion among gedolim in the last century on the subject. Rabbi Michael Broyde wrote an excellent analysis of the subject which you can read here http://www.tfdixie.com/special/thanksg.htm

There are enough things baalei teshuva must give up without going overboard and giving up things we don’t have to.

Melech:

See my response to another post on a similar topic on the suitability of Thanksgiving for BT’s!

Also, I think that some ties must be cut, and other ties do not need to be, or should not be. Here one needs the advice of a posek who “gets it” and who is familiar with your family situation in most cases. We should strive to make “yesses” wherever possible.

This year my parents could not make it,so we were spared some stress with non-Jewish cousins. But my wife still made some traditional dishes, and we talked about Squanto and mekoras hatov.

On the other hand, she refused to make me roast chestnuts, which my Dad always insists on- oh well.

David Linn:

Great comment. I wholeheartedly agree with the need to find a possek or rav who is familiar with one’s particular background and avoid making decisions, especially regarding restrictions, without first asking (we will be discussing the issue of finding a rav a sometime over the next few weeks). Sorry about the chestnuts, Melech.

Shayna – I think that the fact that no other kids in the yeshiva are celebrating is not, in and of itself, a reason not to do it. Sure, we feel peer pressure and we don’t want our kids to be singled out or made fun of. At the same time, we also need to teach are kids the importance of family and permissive individuality.

We are perhaps one of a handful of families in our school that actually has a Thanksgiving meal (my mother made a mean turkey this year, delicious!). At the same time, I think we would certainly be considered “more to the right” than the overwhelming majority of families in the school when it comes to many other social and parenting issues. My wife and I are constantly struggling to strike the balance where our kids understand that just because we don’t allow a particular activity until a certain age and their friends’ parents do doesn’t mean that we are better or frumer than they are. I think that equips them to handle the “peer pressure” when we do things that others don’t, i.e. Thanksgiving.

Teaching tolerance isn’t easy but as BTs that has got to be a priority especially when half of us are here complaining about how many sectors of the FFB world are intolerant of us.

All the talk of turkey and sushi on this site is making hungry!

Moshe Silver:

BS”D
Hey, BT! Lighten up! FYI, what we now observe as Secular New Year’s Day – 1 January – was observed in the ancient world before the birth of Christianity, and was co–opted by the Church. The reason Christmas Day falls eight days before the New Year has to do with making the beirth of the year correspond with the circumcision of Baby J. As to Thanksgiving, one way to look at it is to say it has Christian Roots. Another way is to recognize that its roots really lie in the quest for relgious freedom. I believe it was the Chofetz Chaim who exhorted his own children to go to America, stating that the future of religious Judaism would be there. The Founders of this country were more religion-oriented and G-d oriented than they were Christian oriented. They were Deists and Freemasons, for whom belief in a Deity superseded adherence to a religion. To this day, there is no country on earth more positively disposed towards religious observance, and more religiously tolerant. You couldn’t be a BT in most other countries in the world – not throughout human history, and not even today – without exposing yourself to physical danger. Here, all you have to worry about is embarrassing yourself by not knowing when to stand up and sit down during the services. Are you going to pasken yourself out of recognizing the blessing that HaKadosh Baruch Hu has given us, to be able to be BTRs in the world today? Or are you, like me, going to embrace the one holiday that celebrates G-d and belief, and America all at once?

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Rivkah cut to the chase with her American Holidays – Thanksgiving Survival Guide, really short version

For the last several years I have not had to face being around my family during any of the chagim because I had lived in Israel. Saying no to attending family holidays, for many people it is an extremely difficult burden to face. How do you say no when it is family? But how can you say yes to the Pesach Family Seder that lasts about 15 minutes and the Rosh Hashanah Meal both First and Second Night that isn’t kosher or Sukkot Chol Hamoed Lunch that isn’t in a Sukkah even when it isn’t raining. It is so hard because we love our family and we bend over backwards not wanting to alienate them from frumkite, chas v’shalom. But lets face it…knowing that the chagim are all about our relationship with HaKadosh Baruch-Hu and we just can’t get “there” to the loftiest of places in a home where there isn’t Kiddusha…or at least the brand of Kiddusha we need especially on a Yom Tov.

So how do you get out of the holiday of Thanksgiving? It never falls on a Shabbat…ok and it isn’t a Yom Tov… no problem there. The truth is, at least for me, Turkey-Day is the one holiday I don’t want or need to “get out of”. This year, for the first time in many years, I was able to and did attend the Family Thanksgiving Dinner. So here is my Survivors Guide, really short version, to spending Thanksgiving (or July 4th, Memorial Day, Labor Day, New Years Day fill in the blank __ Day) with your family.

It is really important that you are able to do the most important thing on Thanksgiving and that is of course EAT. Waking up early on Thanksgiving, my kosher turkey went in the oven. Quickly the house was filled with all the smells of my childhood. I made everything I needed to feel good at the table… I was able to sit next to my cousins (of course still at the children’s table) and stuff my belly with yummy Thanksgiving delicacies. I even had enough leftovers at home in the fridge to feel very American on “Black Friday”. The mashed potatoes were my “contribution” to the cornucopia feast. Of course they were parve. I couldn’t bring the traditional buttery potatoes to set along side the table of turkey and spiral-cut-you-know-what! At the end of the evening as we all reclined in our chairs, everyone wanted to know how I made the yummy dilled mashed fluffy stuff. They were all stunned to hear about my secret to make them creamy with out milk or butter (margarine and light mayonnaise). Smiling to myself I thought of my own theory. They tasted so yummy because they were the only kosher thing on the table…of course other than my shiny aluminum pan, double wrapped foil peeled back filled with all the essentials: half a turkey breast, a mini portion of yams with marshmallow, challah stuffing, string bean casserole and of course parve mashed potatoes. FYI … you can follow the Libby’s Pumpkin Pie recipe on the label but instead of condensed milk, replace with soy milk and Rich’s cream frozen.

Some advice from the comments:

Kressel:

BS”D

You did all that on a Thursday night? I am impressed. Did you have turkey for Shabbos?

Menachem

Thanksgiving is the last holiday one should try to “get out of”. In my mother’s extened family there are/were two huge gathering each year that go back at least 2 generations; Pesach Sedar and Thanksgiving. Both gatherings included 3 to 4 generations, often 50 or more people.

As soon as I became frum the Pesach sedar had to go as it was not even kosher let along pesadik. It just wasn’t an option.

Thanksgiving was another story. Since driving and housing were not an issue, I saw no reason not to continue attending this annual “seudah” in order to maintain ties with my extended family. It was usually held in a treif restaraunt and for a few years my mother would order special meals for us (my two siblings and I, and later my wife). Later on we decided to forgo the special meals as they were more hassle than they were worth and we realized the main thing was just to be together with family, not the eating.

David Linn:

I’ve been doing Thanksgiving at my Mother’s the past 15 or so years (that’s a lot of Turkey!) I’m fortunate in the fact that my Mother is now Shomer Shabbos (a story for another time) and kashrus is not an issue.

If you’re going somewhere where you can’t eat, make sure to bring something that you can eat and that everyone else can eat as well!

Conversation is just as importnat as food. O.K., almost as important as food. O.K., conversation is important too. Thanksgiving is just not the time to synopsize the daf for your non-frum cousin. Neither is it the time to sit on the side with your head buried in a sefer. Try to find common ground. If you follow sports and your family does too, voila. Reminiscences of childhood days may work (if you have good ones). Bottom line is to give it some thought before you get there.

Melech:

Hey, one of my favorite topics! I once heard an FFB make a crack to a very chashuv Rav, “Jews don’t do Thanksgiving, we thank Hashem _every_ day.” The Rav- very insightful and knew who he was speaking to said, “So what’s wrong with taking one day and doing it a little more?”

In my family, Thanksgiving persists because it provides few challenges. True, it has to be at our house so we can ensure the kashrus, but that’s not a challenge to my non-frum family and some of their non-Jewish spouses. We get together, eat, thank G-d for obvious blessings, sit around and talk, and don’t watch any football since we don’t own a TV. Then they all leave.

My own Rav has told me on many occaisions that BT’s have to work hard to find “yesses” since so much of what we do becomes “no’s” for them. Thanksgiving is a very easy “yes.”

Except when my wife served turkey on shabbos, my son, then 5 or 6, “poskened” “You’re not allowed to serve leftovers from a goyishe holiday for shabbos!”

That’s BBT’s, folks.

Oh, and there’s no kiruv either.

Originally published on 11/18/2006

The Pain of Forgetting The Mourners Consolation

By Hirshel Tzig

You wanna know pain? I’ll show you pain.

A local non-frum/maybe half-frum Jew walks into shul to say Kaddish. He seems like a somewhat affluent man, yet disheveled, like he hasn’t slept or shaved for a few days. It turns out his dear wife of many years just passed away, and he’s still in middle of Shivah. So the Rov tells him to sit down on a low chair, and that the people davening there will bless him for his recent loss. So, one by one he hears the “HaMokom” from everybody at the Minyan and thanks them for it, although he’s not quite sure what it is they’re saying. A Phenomenon like that is not something you see every day, but it sure does prepare you for what you might see outside of your local frum neighborhood these days.

There was this one gentlemen – a real Tzaddik, a Baal Tshuveh, yes, and most frum people can learn a lot from him – who also wanted to partake of this Mitzvah, (for lack of a better term) and who also started to say the HaMokom. Lo and behold that’s all he could remember, he couldn’t remember the words that follow! The pain and frustration that was visible on his face was worse than anything I had ever seen. Of course he wouldn’t ask anybody what the exact words were, at least I didn’t see him doing that. I also couldn’t bring myself to tell him what they were, for fear of emabarrassing him further, since he didn’t know that I saw him forget. So, he quietly and humbly walked away, in a very “aw-shucks” way lamenting the fact that he couldn’t console the poor old man on his loss. What’s ironic about all this is that he must’ve heard the phrase hundreds of times when being consoled for his own recent loss…..

Originally published in Sept 2007

Ode to a BT-FFB “Intermarriage”

Heaven sent my wife to be my soul mate here on earth,
Although we grew up differently, ‘cause she’s a frum-from-birth.

Her father works in chinuch at a choshuv institution,
On Saturdays, my dad just reads his books on evolution.

Her kollel brother has written many seforim through the years,
My brother went to “Temple” once, but he was bored to tears.

Her sister tends to seven kids and runs a clothes gamach,
My sister cashiers at McDonald’s just around the block.

The list goes on, I’m sad to say, it really gets much worse,
The point is that I feel I’m from a different universe.

We have no shalom bayis problems, a great thing that I wish you,
But privately I really see an underlying issue.

It’s all bershert I didn’t choose a BT for my wife,
But naturally she can’t relate to things from my past life.

It’s challenging to talk with her, of course she’s not to blame,
But I wish someone would understand the things I overcame.

This websites nice, don’t get me wrong, I do have what to say,
But it’s not a substitute for what’s on my mind each day.

I wish more often I could find perhaps some validation,
For the feelings I have deep inside from my life situation.

A BT might come on Shabbos, we would schmooze way past the meal,
He would nod his head and say, “I know exactly how you feel…

My siblings all have married out, their words I’m always dreading,
‘Just because she’s not a Jew, you won’t come to my wedding?!’”

We’d laugh about the treif old songs, the kind that make you hiss,
But when I hear them in the mall, I like to reminisce.

It’s fun to exchange stories how we found our Yiddishkeit,
“Well, first I tried out India, but said, ‘This just ain’t right!’”

And silly comments come to mind, (I’ve made quite a few),
“Aharon’s name is Cohen, but his brother is Rabbeinu??”

And to this day I still goof up: “Kag Samayack!” I exclaimed,
But when my kids corrected me, I really felt ashamed.

I really feel quite fortunate, don’t mean to moan and groan,
But even with a family, sometimes I feel alone.

Perhaps I need to make more friends, to be a bit outgoing,
This is all just part of life, as long as I keep growing.

Originally posted in October 2010

Self-Actualization and the Focus on Your Self

My senior year in college, my friends and I organized a party. Having exhausted such themes as “Come as your major” and “sixties revival,” we hit upon what seemed a novel idea: Come as you will be in ten years. Attendees rose to the occasion, coming as Greenpeace activists or genetic engineers. (For the sake of my children’s shidduchim, I decline to state how I came.)

My favorite costume, however, was that of Keith, who dressed in his usual sleeveless sweatshirt and jeans, adorned only with a name tag that read: Keith — self-actualized.

We used to joke that even after achieving self-actualization we would still need therapy to cope with the loneliness of being self-actualized in a world of chronic and pervasive neuroses. I periodically wonder whether this is not an apt description of the successful ba’al tshuva who has “made it.”

Readers may be familiar with the story of Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva is gabbai of the shul. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva is ba’al tefillah for the Yomim Noroyim. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva fills in for the rav giving the Shabbos shiur. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva is respected by everyone in the community. So why do they still call him Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva? Because Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva still insists on not talking during kriyas haTorah.

How many of us became ba’alei tshuva because the ideals of Torah attracted us by their truth and their beauty, because of the kedusha of the Shabbos table and the exultation of Simchas Torah? And how many of us subsequently came to question why, if the ideal was so inspiring, did the reality leave so much to be desired? How many of us gradually learned to cope by lowering our expectations for the community, and then, inevitably, for ourselves, only to wonder somewhere down the line what happened to us, to our enthusiasm, to our idealism?

And how many of us grew bitter, convinced that if only our communities were stronger, we could be so much stronger ourselves?

Is this self-actualization?

In a series of letters I exchanged a few years back with Rav Mendel Weinbach, shlita, of Ohr Somayach, I repeatedly vented my frustrations with this or that failing of Klal Yisroel. Rav Mendel never told me I was wrong, never chastised me for my intolerance, never ordered me to clean up my own house before I condemned others and theirs.

What did he tell me? Quite simply, he said: We’re in galus. This is galus.

It’s easy to become cynical, and it’s easy to justify our cynicism because there’s so much about which to be cynical. But we gain nothing through our righteous indignation, except to distract ourselves from our real avodah. Indeed, it’s possible that the ikkar avodah of the self-actualized Torah Jew is to accept the imperfections in the world around him, to understand that the world will only be perfect when we have perfected ourselves as avdei HaShem, and that fixating on the shortcomings of others only serves to prolong the galus. On the other hand, by striving to better ourselves we not only shorten the galus but ease our own passage through galus until Moshiach brings it to its final end.

Originally Posted on Jan 16, 2006

The Inner Meaning Behind The Four Species and the Sukkah

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download some amazing Drashos on Succos

The Inner Meaning Behind The Four Species and the Sukkah

In the Yom Tov of Sukkos, the main mitzvos are to shake the four species and to sit in the sukkah. (There used to also be the mitzvah of nisuch hamayim in the Beis Hamikdash, but we no longer have the Beis Hamikdash).

The mitzvah of the four species involves movement – we shake them and move them around, which symbolizes how we want to move away from evil, and instead to come closer to Hashem. By contrast, the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah involves no movement at all – we sit in it and don’t move at all. This symbolizes a different aspect of our avodas Hashem: to reach the point of “non-movement.”

In other words, there are two steps in our avodas Hashem- sometimes we have to “move”, and sometimes we “don’t move”.[1]

Sukkos of Today and Sukkos of the Future

There is a halachah on Sukkos that we have to sit specifically in the “shadow” (“tzeil”) of the sukkah. This is the sukkah of nowadays – we sit in the sukkah’s shadow, which symbolizes how Hashem’s radiance is concealed from us.

However, in the future, Chazal state that the sukkah will be made from the skin of the leviathan – it will be a sukkah of entirely light. The Sukkah of the future will be the perfect sukkah, in which “all citizens” (“kol ha’ezrach”) will be enveloped within it; “ezrach”, “citizen”, is rooted in the word “zerichah”, “light.” This alludes to the sukkah of the future, which will be totally light. This is because the depth behind the sukkah is not just to be “in the shadow” of the sukkah, but to sit in the light of Hashem.

Dovid Hamelech says that “Hashem is my light, and my salvation.” Chazal expound on this verse that “my light” is referring to Rosh Hashanah, while “my salvation” is referring to Yom Kippur. Sukkos, which is the continuation of this, is the actual revelation of “my light”, Rosh Hashanah – which is entirely Hashem’s light.

It is only nowadays that the sukkah is like a “shadow”, because since there is evil in the world, the evil places a “shadow” on the “light” of Rosh Hashanah and dims it from its full effect. But in the future, there will be no more evil, and then Sukkos will no longer be a concept of shadow, but rather a concept of complete spiritual light.

Shemini Atzeres – The D’veykus With Hashem Above All Spiritual Light

Even higher than Sukkos is the level of Shemini Atzeres, which is the day of complete unity between Hashem and the Jewish people. It is a power that is above even the spiritual light revealed through Rosh Hashanah and Sukkos.[2]

Chazal say of this day that Hashem said, “Remain with me one more day”. This is the great desire of Hashem toward His people, and it was there even before Hashem created light on the first day; this great desire that He has to us returns on Shemini Ateres.

[1] The Rav has been brief here in this fundamental concept; we will elaborate here to give more background. Generally speaking, the lower mode of Avodas Hashem involves movement, such as the six days of the week, when we move and work, representing the mundane. On Shabbos we don’t move, because we do not work; thus non-movement is always seen as the higher aspect of our Avodas Hashem. In sefer Da Es Menuchasecha (which is available online in English as “The Search for Serenity”), these concepts are explained at length in regards to achieving menuchas hanefesh – that the more we reach our “non-moving” state of our soul, the closer we come to our inner peace. The innermost part of our soul, our Yechidah, is a non-moving part of our existence, because our actual self is very still, content with its existence, for it is a cheilek eloka mimaal, a “portion of Hashem”. Our very essence is unmoving because it is rooted in Hashem, who is unmoving. Non-movement is also explained more in sefer Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh: Shabbos Kodesh, as well as in sefer Da Es Hargoshosecha (soon to be released in English as “Getting To Know Your Feelings”). This footnote does not nearly exhaust the topic; it is a very vast subject which the Rov frequently discusses, and the references we have given here are the main sources where the Rov discusses it at length.

[2] Editor’s Note: See sefer Sifsei Chaim: Moadim (Vol. I) who explains how the spirituality of Shemini Atzeres is deeper than the first days of Sukkos. On Sukkos, we have the mitzvah of sukkah and the four species, because we are given these tools on Sukkos to reach closeness to Hashem through them. However, Shemini Atzeres is a higher connection we have with Hashem, as it is the culmination of the entire Yomim Noraim; thus, it doesn’t require us to sit in the sukkah or to shake the four species, because it is more of a direct connection with Hashem. See also Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh on Sukkos, pages 112-113 for an esoteric difference between Sukkos and Shemini Atzeres.

Rosh HaShanah – Avodah of Ben & Eved

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download some amazing Drashos on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
including one titled Mussar Vs. Chassidus

Malchiyus – Declaring Hashem’s sovereignty

Hashem says on Rosh HaShanah, “Declare before Me malchiyus, zichronos, and shofaros; declare malchiyus so that I should rule over you.”[1]

The truth is that in all of the davening on Rosh HaShanah, the only time we mention “zichronos” and “shofaros” is in the tefillah of Mussaf. Throughout all of the tefillos, however, we mention malchiyus. This shows us that malchiyus is the main aspect which we mention on Rosh HaShanah.

“There is no king without a nation.”[2] In order for Hashem to be King on us, so to speak, we need to declare ourselves as His servants. In other words, the avodah we have on Rosh Hashanah is not just to declare Hashem as our King. It is mainly that we become His servants.

Now that we have clarified that the main avodah on Rosh Hashanah is to accept our servitude to Hashem, we must know what it means to be an eved, a servant. If we truly know what it means to be an “eved”, we can understand our mission on this day.

“Eved” – Derogatory or Praiseworthy?

The Gemara[3] says that when we do Hashem’s will, we are called a ben (son) of Hashem, and when we don’t do His will, we are called eved\servant. It seems from this statement that eved is a derogatory title, something we are called when we don’t do Hashem’s will.

However, we find that Moshe Rabbeinu is given the unique title “eved” of Hashem. He is also called “eved ne’eman” – “trustworthy servant of Hashem”.

This is a paradox. Is eved a derogatory title, or is it a praiseworthy title?!

Three Levels

It depends, because there are two implications of the word “eved.”:

1) One person serves his king, not because he loves him, but because he needs the king to fulfill his needs. He’s serving the king all for himself. An eved like this is the negative implication of eved, because all his service to the King is for his own benefit.

2) There is a higher implication of eved, and that is when the servant doesn’t serve Hashem for his own personal interests, but because he’s devoted entirely to the king. This is the deeper meaning behind why “whatever a servant acquires, his master acquires it” – it is because ideally, a servant has no personal life of his own, and his whole life is devotes to his master. This is the desirable level of eved – and one who acts like this fulfills the purpose of Creation. This was the kind of eved that Moshe Rabbeinu was. It is the meaning behind the Mishnah in Avos, “Do not be like servants who serve their master in order to receive reward, rather, be like servants who serve their master not to get a reward.”

We see from the above that it’s possible for a person to act selflessly and be considered “eved”, and that one doesn’t have to on the level of “ben” in order to reach this. Ben is when a person goes even beyond that and serves the king out of his love.

A person needs to have selfless devotion to Hashem, and this is “eved.” With this as well, a person needs to have serve Hashem out of a love for Him, and this is called “ben.” If so, we have altogether three levels:

1) The lower kind of eved, one who serves Hashem only because he needs Him.
2) The higher kind of eved, one who serves Hashem because he lives his life for Him.
3) Ben, which is when one serves Hashem out of a love for Him.

Practical Guidance for Utilizing Rosh Hashanah

If we want to prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashanah and declare Him as King over us – and that we become His servants – we must understand that if we feel as if we are forced into serving Him, we are being the first kind of eved, and then the whole purpose of Rosh Hashanah will be lost. Our main task on Rosh Hashanah we must do is to be like the second kind of eved: that our whole lives should be about one goal alone – serving Hashem. This should be why we live our life, and we shouldn’t have any other personal desires. This is the inner meaning behind all of our avodah on Rosh Hashanah.

It is not enough just to daven slowly and with concentration on Rosh Hashanah. Our main job on this day is to come to a decision that we will change our lives and live only for Hashem – and not for ourselves.

This job obligates us to make a deep internal clarification. We must know exactly what we want to get out of our life, and to examine our deeds to see if they are line with the goal we are striving for. If one truly decides to live a life of serving Hashem, he has to see if all that he does 24\7 is reflecting this.

How We Can Let Rosh Hashanah Affect Us For The Whole Year

If a person accepts upon himself to become a true eved of Hashem, then Rosh Hashanah must not end for him on the third day of Tishrei; Rosh Hashanah has to carry over into the rest of the year as well, until the next Rosh Hashanah! If a person examines his situation and finds that on Purim and Pesach he doesn’t think about Hashem, it must be that he did not have a good Rosh Hashanah. It shows that he did not accept upon himself on Rosh Hashanah to become an eved of Hashem.

May Hashem merit us that we all accept His sovereignty on Rosh Hashanah, and that we should become His true servants – and through this, we can merit to have the light of Rosh Hashanah affect us the whole year round.

The Chofetz Chaim’s 85th Yahrzeit is the 24th of Elul – Here is His NY Times Obituary(1933)

Chofetz Chaim, 105 Is Dead in Poland

Venerated by Orthodox Jews as one of the 36 ‘Saints Who Saved the World’.

Lived Long In Poverty

Gave Up Store When Popularity in Village ‘Deprived Other Mechants of a Living’.

WILNO, Poland, Sept 15 (Jewish Telegraph Agency) – The famed Chofetz Chaim, venerated by Orthodox Jews throughout the world as one of the 36 saints because of whose piety the Lord has not destroyed the world, died today in the village of Radin, near here, where he had spent most of the more than 100 years of his life. He had been ill only a short time

The Chofetz Chaim, whose real name was Rabbi Yisroel Meier Cohen, had been a figure of almost legendary importance for almost half a century. Stories of his piety sprang up in the lore of Eastern Europe and among orthodox Jews all over the world. The village where he had served for a few months as a rabbi was the scene of pilgrimages of thousands of orthodox Jews seeking the blessing of the Chofetz Chaim.

In 1873 Rabbi Cohen published a book in Hebrew, entitled the “Chofetz Chaim”, listing all the forms of slander from which a pious Jew must guard himself. It was because of this book that he became known as the Chofetz Chaim.
Age Believed to Be 106.

He was born in the village of Zhetel, Poland. After a brief period as a rabbi in Radin he founded a yeshiva, a school for teaching the Talmud, and supported it for many years. He gained renown as a Talmudic scholar and many of his works on the regulations of the Jewish religion have been accepted as definitive.
Funeral services will be held Sunday at Radin.

The Chofetz Chaim was 105 years old, according to information from his family, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported. He never would reveal his age, however, and several years ago, when friends and relatives planned a birthday celebration in his honor, the scholar was very much perturbed.

Despite his fame as “the uncrowned spiritual king of Israel”, the Chofetz Chaim was a modest and humble man. His career as a merchant was of short duration. Because of his popularity all the Jews of the town flocked to his store. The Chofetz Chaim thereupon closed the store on the ground he was depriving other Jewish merchants of a living.

At the age of 90, when he was already a legendary figure among the Jews, the Chofetz Chaim became convinced of the imminent arrival of the Messiah, who would lead the Jews back to Palestine and he regarded it as his special duty to assume the functions of the high priest.

He was the author of a score of works surrounding the religious and ethical principals of the Jewish religion, including one which became a handbook for all rabbis. Despite his great distinction the Chofetz Chaim lived in povery all his life.

Chofetz Chaims Obituary

Simple Kavannas for Elul

Elul is the Time to Start on the Little Things
At the beginning of Shaarei Teshuva (The Gates of Teshuva), Rabbeinu Yonah teaches that if we make our efforts in Teshuva, then Hashem will assist us in return, even to the extent of reaching the highest level of loving Him. But we have to make our efforts. Rabbi Welcher says that Elul is the time to start making efforts on the little things as we work up to dealing with some of our bigger issues.

Kavanna is a Big “Little Thing”

Where does kavanna fit in? On the one hand, we all know how difficult it is to daven a full Shomoneh Esrai with good kavanna, but on the other hand saying one brocha or doing one mitzvah with the proper kavanna is something that all of us can achieve. Being focused on Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh this year has shown me the importance of kavanna and awakened me to the fact they we can spend our whole lives involved in Torah, Mitzvos, Tefillah and Chesed, but if we are not focused on Hashem during our day to day lives, then we are not properly building our souls and achieving our purpose in this world and the next. The obvious place to start building is when we’re involved in Hashem focused activities like davening and mitzvos.

Kavanna during Mitzvos
There are three basic thoughts to have in mind before performing a mitzvah:
1) Hashem is the one who commanded this mitzvah;
2) I am the subject of that command; and
3) Through the act that I am about to perform, I am fulfilling Hashem’s command.
It’s that simple, the Commander (Hashem), the commanded (me), the fulfilment (the mitvah). So, perhaps we can focus ourselves before we do a mitzvah and have these three things in mind.

Kavanna during Prayer
Shacharis davening consists of four basic components, while Mincha and Maariv and brachos contain some subset of those components which are:
1) Thanking Hashem for the physical goodness He gives to us (Berachos/Korbanos)
2) Praising Hashem for His general awesomeness (Pesukei D’Zimra)
3) Intellectually accepting and appreciating the Kingship and Oneness of Hashem (Shema)
4) Standing before Hashem with spiritual awareness that He is the source of everything
Obviously there’s a lot to talk about here and I highly recommend Aryeh Kaplan’s Jewish Mediation as a primary source for understanding kavanna and prayer.

Kavanna during Shacharis
Let’s go through a typical Shacharis and pick some potential Kavanna points.
1) When putting on Tallis and Tefillin, have in mind the three points of Kavanna during mitzvos described above
2) When saying morning Brachos, be thankful that Hashem has given you the opportunity to say these Brochos
3) During Korbonos, say at least Parshas HaTamid and Ketores with extra focus concentrating on the simple meaning of the words
4) During Pesukei D’Zimra in Ashrei say this line with focus: Poseach Es YoDecha… – You open your hand and satisfy every living thing’s desires”. A basic understanding is that although Hashem runs the world through orderly natural laws (as symbolized by the aleph-beis structure of Ashrei), He is constantly active in running the world.
5) During Shema, before the first verse have in mind that you are accepting Hashem’s Kingship and oneship with the implication of following a Torah way of life. According to some you should have in mind that you would actually give up your life for Hashem, if necessary.
6) Before Shmoneh Esrai have in mind that you are about to stand before Hashem and pray to him, that He is awesome, and that we are relatively small compared to Him, the source of everything.

These are just some ideas. Certainly we can do one a week, or one a day, or possibly more. Whatever works for you, but let’s make the effort and earn the merit to grow closer to Hashem at this time.

Originally published on September 2, 2009

How the Terms BT and FFB Stunt Our Spiritual Growth

Dedication- I dedicate this post to the URL of this blogsite- BeyondBT. Most simply deconstructed as Beyond Ba’al T’shuva. The implied purpose being to transcend the societal constraints and the sometimes suffocating self-perceptions evoked by the term “Ba’al T’shuva”. In a word… let’s get past it.

Caveat- This post is intended for those who’ve been Torah Observant for 5+ years. Its message is not for those who get ruffled when old axioms are challenged. It is for those who long for their earliest heady days of spiritual awakening and who intuit that there may have been a linkage between the passion for Yiddishkeit that characterized that long-ago-far-away time in their lives and their nascent iconoclasm that allowed them to smash the idols of received wisdom and preconceived notions on a regular basis.

Among the ways of T’shuva is for the returnee …to change his name
– Rambam Laws of T’shuva 2:4

I’ve always been a bit of a stickler about semantics. G-d convinced the angels of Adam’s profound wisdom based on his ability to assign names. The name changes of such great figures as Avrohom, Sorah, Yisroel, Binyomin and Yehoshua signaled momentous, historic metaphysical modifications. The bard may have said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” but his was not a Torah-informed sensibility. I believe that when the words we use to clothe raw concepts are skewed, wooly or unfocused, our conversations become the communicative equivalents of a fashion faux pas. Kind of like wearing gloves on our feet. At best an unattractive look and at worst a recipe for a pair of really sore feet.

In my estimation the acronyms BT and FFB have done incalculable damage to all parties concerned. Here’s why: T’shuva presumes being accountable for ones life and taking responsibility for repairing those parts of our live’s that we have damaged. What the term “Ba’al T’shuva” has meant historically is a person who had previously been an avaryon AKA a Rosha who had undergone the demanding and rigorous service of T’shuva until (s)he had “mastered” it to repair all that was broken. Hence the term Ba’al T’shuva = “Master of Repentance”.

According to the classic Torah literature on the subject the engine that drives T’shuva is sincere, profound and, according to some, lifelong remorse over the sin. In the historical model even the resolution for the future and behavior modification aspects of Avodas HaT’shuva hinges on the depth and intensity of the remorse. Ever tortured by the memory of sin, reminding a historically defined BT of their past sins is considered onoas devorim (insulting and hurtful speech) because it is the verbal equivalent of picking a painful and unsightly scab. According to Rabenu Yonah, the centrality of remorse and taking personal responsibility is also why “shame” (#6) and “one’s sin being constantly before him” (#18) are among his twenty fundamental principles of T’shuva.

While perpetual remorse and shame may not be the way an FFB relates to his/her past it is also not an apt description of how a representative modern-day BT relates to theirs. Nor should it be. How can we regret or be ashamed of choices that we did not make? If our great-grandparents chose to abandon Torah, if we were not afforded the barest rudiments of a Torah education or upbringing, if we were nurtured in a culture that is mostly antithetical to Torah and it’s ideals, in short if we are indeed tinokos shenishbu what, precisely, are we regretting? Is it our natures or our nurtures? How can this be when we were responsible for neither? G-d alone is responsible for the former and He, our parents, teachers and society for the latter. When doing T’shuva are we supposed to regret and be ashamed of what G-d has done or failed to do or of what WE have done or failed to do? This may be the subliminal message of the Rambam in placing the doctrine of human free will in his Laws of T’shuva rather than in the Laws of the Fundamentals of the Torah. He may be trying to teach us that T’shuva= remorse must always be about our own choices and never about HaShem’s providence and his administration of His creation. Far from engaging in a holy Avodah contemporary BTs who place too much emphasis on regret are in fact indulging themselves in a good old-fashioned fist shaking at G-d.

The arithmetic is simple; if pre-observance we were Tinokos Shenishbu but never reshoim, then we can’t be Ba’alei T’shuva in a traditional sense. Of course we can and do modify our thoughts, speech and behavior. We can also regret and DO T’shuva for those of our youthful indiscretions that we already knew were wrong in spite of our non/anti-Torah upbringing. (I don’t think anyone gets a “Tinok Shenishba” pass for shoplifting or harassing homeless people.) But that is hardly unique to non-FFBs. FFBs for the most part do T’shuva as well (at the very least during Elul and the Yomim Noraim =Days of Awe). Some obsess over T’shuva and really work hard, smart and effectively at it. But I’ve yet to meet one who would say that (s)he’s earned the moniker BA’AL T’shuva. Most FFBs are also fully aware of the beautiful Chazal that “Even the completely righteous (tsadikim g’murim) cannot stand in (i.e. attain) the [exalted spiritual] place that the Ba’lei T’shuva stand in”. So, for most everyone, to perceive oneself as a BA’AL T’shuva is at best pretentious and at worst self-delusional. Imagine a fellow fancying himself a Talmid Chochom or even a Gaon having studied only one or two Talmudic tractates or someone practicing halakhic stringency or two considering themselves a Tsadik or a Chosid. When such exaggerated self-assessment is conveyed to others it, unsurprisingly, evokes reactions of skepticism, defensiveness and mockery. These self-perceptions will not earn anyone friends or integration into a society of “just plain folks”.

Those who fail to discern the qualitative difference of the pre-T’shuva states of having been a Rosha and having been born a Tinok Shenishba run the risk of diffusing an even more destructive fallout, one that strikes much closer to home. For many contemporary BTs who fall into this category, having no real sin to regret the focus of the remorse shifts to the putative sinner(s). Conflating the traditional and contemporary concepts of Ba’al T’shuva makes us regret and feel ashamed of people (including ourselves), experiences and friends we have no business feeling ashamed of or about. It leads to tortured relationships with friends and family, to suppressing rather than sublimating our pre-observance education, talents and accomplishments and, worst of all, it causes us to fixate and waste our energies on “passing” as an FFB rather than on becoming an Ehrlicher Yid. To conclude- the mostly inaccurate and hyperbolic appellation, BT, manages the slick semantical and psycho-spiritual trick of being both devastatingly self-deprecating and ridiculously self-aggrandizing.

FFB is hardly a benign word either. The first “F” which expands to “Frum” is never to be confused with “ethical” or “spiritual”. In it’s contemporary usage Frum has, almost exclusively, come to mean a soulless adherence to the letter of the law and a negation of its spirit. There is an innate putdown in the “from birth” portion of this acronym as well. It implies that whatever “religion” (but never spirituality) the FFB does have is an accident of birth. Whereas BTs might fancy themselves self-made millionaires FFBs deserve no admiration or respect because, as the name implies, they were born with silver spoons in their mouths. I’ve actually seen the term retooled on other blogs to “Frum by accident”. The fact is that we are all, BT and FFB alike, JFCs =Jews from (matrilineal) conception. No one is frum from birth. Jewishness=the potential for achieving the sanctity of Torah and Mitzvahs, is our bio-spiritual birthright. For want of a better word Frumkeit, i.e. actualizing that potential, is not. Even those born and raised in Bnei Braq, Meah Shearim or Lakewood are endowed with free will and, as Rav Dessler articulates in his famous Treatise on Free-Will, cultivate their relationship with G-d davka by those positive exercises of free will that they were not predisposed to doing by their parents, peer groups and teachers.

Any FFB that considers the term a compliment must have forgotten the Chazal that reveals the underlying meaning of the name of our evil uncle Eisov. According to the Midrash he was named Eisov (alliteratively Osu =done) because he was “done” and physically complete at birth. On an overt level this means that the newborn Eisov was hirsute and had a full set of teeth. But what it also implies is that he was spiritually/metaphysically finished immediately post-partum. The balance of his life here on earth was an entropic downhill slide toward the grave and represents the dross of his father Yitzchak’s holy middah of being conceived and born in kedusha. An FFB who luxuriates in that name shares more in common with the cartoonish Richie Rich than with any true Oved HaShem. Such FFBs are spirituality’s snooty and spoiled rich kids and about as attractive and inspiring as the socioeconomic kind. As it is in chronology so must it be in spirituality. Birth is the starting gate not the finish line.

None of this is to say that contemporary BTs have not had to work harder than their FFB compatriots to attain comparable levels of observance. Pain exerted to achieve spiritual gain is the main (but not exclusive) yardstick by which G-d determines reward. I may be overreaching but IMO part of this “extra measure” of reward manifests in the incredibly swift strides that BTs make in their Torah Study and Mitzvah observance vis a vis FFBs. BTs are to be admired, respected and celebrated for all the pains they took to become, stay and grow ever more observant. But we run the dangerous risks of hubris and divisiveness when we presume that one group in Jewry has a monopoly on the pain/ gain correspondence or on HaShem’s affections.

Make no mistake there are, in fact, many groups and factions within Jewry and the onus for ending the lingering feelings of otherness and alienation many veteran BTs endure still rests squarely on the shoulders of FFBs. To date FFB culture has done a comparatively superb job of being friendly to their non-observant and BT brethren but not as good a job of actually becoming their friends (or Mechutonim!). That said there are the larger questions and challenges that lie before all groups and factions. Among others: Must BTs forever remain a sub/counterculture in Yiddishkeit? As the Kiruv movement moves into its third generation are we any closer to true integration, equality and unity than we were 40-50 years ago? I believe that positive solutions to these questions will begin with our liberation from the inaccurate, pejorative or pompous labels “BT” and “FFB” and their attendant warped perceptions. I dream of a Jewry in which terms such as these will be considered unacceptable in polite conversation. How about replacing BT and FFB with “late beginner” and “early beginner”? “Observant from childhood” and “Observant from adulthood”? “Having religiously supportive parents” and “lacking religiously supportive parents”? Or, best of all, how about one single term that aptly describes all of us- Yidden! Perhaps then as in the days of yore at Simchas Bais HaShoayva in the Bais HaMikdosh all factions can join together in the exultant dance singing “Lucky are those that never sinned and those that did, let them return and be forgiven!”

First Posted 0n 2/21/2006 with the title: “Crafting a New Nomenclature”

In Search of Neo-Mussar

I was recently learning with a chavrusa about the mitzvah of Ahavas Hashem. We were trying to broaden our understanding of love and I pointed out that a given person probably loves their parents, their children, and their spouses. Now bring that person to Shul on Shabbos and ask him, “Who do you love in this room?”. He’ll look around and perhaps he’ll say “I think I can say that I love that guy. And maybe those two over there”. If you point out that there’s a mitzvah to love every Jew in the room, he’ll probably give you a shrug.

I’ve asked many friends and Rebbeim over the years about the mitzvah of Ahavas Hashem. One Rabbi told me that it’s for people on a higher level. I pointed out that we mention the obligation of Ahavas Hashem in Shema multiple times a day. To his credit, he went to his Roshei Yeshiva, who told him the Ahavas Hashem is in fact a mitzvah for everyone.

Another Rabbi said that he was not sure that Love of Hashem was even an emotion. I told him that was a big chiddush. Other Rebbeim have pointed out that our Avodah is intellectually centered, and we’re cautious about too much emotionalism. In fact, Rabbi Dessler praises the Chassidic custom to arouse emotions through external means, like the use of schnapps, but he also points out that emotionalism is not the same as internalizing love and connection to Hashem.

I recently gave a Dvar Torah at our Hashkama minyan and I said we needed a neo-Mussar to help develop our emotional connection to Hashem. My Rav got wind of the term and asked, “Why not real Mussar?”. I respectively replied that the word Mussar has negative connotations to many people, and even those who have a healthy Mussar diet, seem to have trouble getting to the emotional connection. I’m developing and experimenting with certain practices which I think will provide a path to intellectual driven emotions and connection to Hashem. I hope to share some of these ideas in the future.

Confessions of a BT Wannabe

By Charlotte Friedland

It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I’m not a ba’alas teshuvah (BT). As I was born to observant Jewish parents, the outreach networks dismiss me as an “FFB”—a “frum from birth” specimen, not worthy of attention. The term itself suggests staleness. After all, an FFB arrives in a world where traditions and education are clearly outlined, and from that moment on, it’s same ol’, same ol’.

So there are no special Shabbatons, no charismatic rabbis seeking me out, no books written about my kind—except those describing us as smug, spoiled and spiritually indolent. But that’s not all: the fact that our families held onto religious Judaism renders us likely to indulge in excessive triumphant bleating. And nobody invites a triumphalist to parties.

Thus it is written, and thus it is believed. Lord knows, I’ve tried not to be triumphant, curbed my pride in rabbinic ancestors, lowered my voice in shul. Yet the image persists. To remedy the situation, I’ve been hanging out at outreach events, skulking around, trying my best to look lost. One must appear to be searching, that’s the key.

Usually, in fact, I am searching for my keys, but no one seems to care about the small stuff. Everyone is so busy describing their personal epiphanies, so full of that glowing exuberance over critical life choices, that they can’t hide their disappointment when I confess my lineage. “Oh, an FFB,” they mouth politely, “how nice,” and then move on to that fascinating individual who just entered the room, fresh from an ashram.

No, I don’t remember my first Shabbos. I never struggled over reading Hebrew, nor had a defining moment of truth. But I’ve had a few good cries on Yom Kippur, really, and once in awhile I think to myself, “If I weren’t born religious, would I be doing this?” And then my mind clicks off, unable to fathom the question.

Trained to think in Biblical terms, I look for guidance to the first FFB in history—Yitzchak. After all, his father and mother had grown up “out there.” He was born after they had mastered Shabbos zemiros and correct hemlines, and he was raised to be a perfect Jew from day one. Granted, it appears that he has no trace of his folks’ flair for convincing people of an invisible God. Kind of withdrawn and sullen, he seems—and I think I know why. He probably felt out of place at his parents’ “Judaism 101” weekends. There he is, the first FFB, standing awkwardly among all those repentant pagans, struggling to empathize with their turmoil, while his father works the tent, cheerfully spreading his light.

He nods dumbly as the caravan driver describes to him his disillusion with idols, his attempts to find meaning in camel racing, his sixteen failed marriages, his forty-three children who “just don’t seem to have any values, no values at all. That’s why, I’m here. I’m told that Abraham is onto something big, something that could change my life. You know what I mean? Did you ever wonder ‘what’s it all about?’” Abraham’s son shifts uneasily. “Yeah, sure. I know. I have a brother like that….” But his voice sounds hollow, his tone unconvincing. Better to leave kiruv to the professionals.

The outreach pros in my life have told me how lucky I am. I should be part of their army, they say, marching (but not too triumphantly) along with them. I should be descending upon the secular world with the light of heritage glowing in my eyes. Dunno. Like most FFBs, I’m scared silly that someone will ask a basic question that I can’t answer. I’m not an authority, just a plain Jew.

At least I could invite somebody for Shabbos now and then, that’s true. And the fact is that whenever we do have “late starters” at the table, I always learn something from them. They ask questions that never entered my mind; they marvel at the easy-going confidence with which we roll through the rituals—–to the point that even I take notice. And they make me feel blessed because I have never been without a hearty, meaningful Jewish life, the kind of life they want so badly it hurts.

I think it was the Bluzhover Rebbe—who so valiantly led others through the Holocaust—who once commented that the “ruach teshuvah,” the spirit of awakening rippling across our world today, is the spiritual outcome of the horrific war years. The problem, he mused, is that only secular Jews are taking advantage of it, though it is meant for all of us.

Imagine that. Spiritual growth is not limited to those born on the outskirts of Jewland. You can live your entire life as an Orthodox Jew and still have room to emerge as a ba’al teshuvah. Could that be the challenge? I wonder if there are other people like me—BT wannabes who are beginning to think that maybe being an FFB is deceptively simple, that our goals have been set too low.

Are there enough of us to launch a new era? Dare we raise our banner as FFBBTs, create our own chat room, gather at conventions?

Who am I kidding? In my heart of hearts, this generic Jew knows that the title doesn’t matter and never did. It’s a question of direction. Let’s face it: clawing your way up from being 85 percent frum to 86 percent is a real struggle, even if it doesn’t earn accolades, even if it has no name. There’s no dramatic story, but you have the quiet satisfaction of knowing that you live your Judaism as genuinely as the BT next door.

I suspect that it’s time for us all to drop the labels and move on.


“Reprinted with permission from Jewish Action – Winter 2007, the magazine of the Orthodox Union. “

© 2007 Charlotte Friedland

Charlotte Friedland is a former editor of Jewish Action and also served as book editor at Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

Introspection on Tisha B’Av

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on the Three Weeks and Tisha B’Ave

Knowing vs. Feeling

We will try a little, with siyata d’shmaya, to somewhat reach, perhaps, the essence of this day [Tisha B’Av].

We generally know all there is to know [about the Nine Days]. We all know the reasons why we must mourn, and the necessity to mourn. But the distance between what we know, and what we feel is usually a very far distance.

Sometimes the distance between knowledge and feeling is bigger and sometimes it is smaller, but either way, there is always a big difference between what we know with what we feel. If we ask any person if we are supposed to mourn over the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, any person will answer, “Yes.” If we ask any person if we should cry over this, the answer is also “Yes.” If we ask a person if he really feels like doing so, though, we will get different answers.

The minimum pain we are supposed to feel is to at least be pained over the fact that we don’t feel the pain we know we are supposed to feel and that we aren’t succeeding in getting ourselves to cry. If even this doesn’t bother the person, this person is very far from the avodah of these days.

We will try here to draw the matters closer to us, so that it is should at least be made possible for us to have somewhat of a degree of mourning and weeping.

Some Introductory Points

However, it is right now the 29th day of Tamuz, and we hope Mashiach will come soon. Therefore, the words here are only relevant if Mashiach isn’t here before the 9th of Av. Additionally, the words here are not only applicable to Tisha B’Av of this year. There is no way for a person to suddenly change in the timespan between the 29th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av. The heart doesn’t suddenly get opened so fast. If someone knows of such a way, I will be very happy to hear of it.

If the words we will say here are indeed helpful to you, at best they might help you for next year Tisha B’Av [because there is no way to change so fast by the time it comes this year’s Tisha B’Av]. Hashem should bring Mashiach by then, and hopefully way before that; he should come today, and then today’s derasha will just be one of the many lectures of history. Our avodah is to try to prepare ourselves [for Tisha B’Av] – and that is what we will try to do here.

Why Do We Have A Hard Time With the Nine Days?

When a person hears good news, does he need to prepare for it? Usually, if it is very good news, you don’t need to prepare for the news in order to enjoy it. You are just happy and excited to hear the good news, whether you expected it or not. The same is true of hearing sad news; it has an intense effect on us even if we didn’t prepare for it. If so, why is it that our soul usually doesn’t feel an intense sadness over the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash?

Our Sages already addressed this question, and gave several answers.

(1) “Old mourning”. The mourning is not new to us. We go through this mourning ever year, therefore we have grown used to it, so we’re not as affected by it.

(2) We don’t feel it. Another reason given is because a person simply doesn’t feel that the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed. We might know very well that the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, but do we feel that it was destroyed? It is a whole different question.

(3) We can’t recognize it. The Beis HaMikdash has been destroyed already for close to 2,000 years. We are only able to know what something is when we know what its opposite is.

For example, we know what light is because we know what darkness is, and we know what the color white is because we know what the color black is. We would be able to relate to the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash if we would have seen it standing. But because none of saw it (in the current lifetime we are in), we do not have an actual recognition of the destruction. Because we never saw the Beis HaMikdash, it is hard for us to relate to its destruction.

So there is actually a third reason why it is hard for our soul to relate the destruction, (and on a deeper note, it is really another angle of the second reason, the fact that we don’t feel the destruction): we can only recognize something from its opposite, and since we do not know what it means for the Beis HaMikdash to be standing, we do not recognize its destruction.

A Closed Heart Vs. An Opened Heart

Yet there is another reason why it is hard for us to relate to the destruction, and it precedes all of the above three reasons.

The feelings of joy, pain, and sadness are not intellectual abilities. They do not stem from the daas of our intellect; they stem from the daas of our heart [when it combines with the daas of the intellect]. When one’s heart is alive with spiritual feelings, it is working properly, and it breathes the reality in front of us. When a person isn’t sensitive to spiritual feelings, when he never reflects into the spiritual realities in front of us, he is far from what it means to have joy on the festivals, he is far from improving during the Ten Days of Repentance, and he is far from the pain that we are supposed to feel during the Nine Days through Tisha B’Av.

Thus, if one doesn’t feel the pain over the destruction during the Nine Days, this is only a ‘branch’ of the problem, a symptom of something deeper. The ‘root’ of the problem is the fact that he is not in touch with his spiritual heart. It’s not because he doesn’t know how to feel pain over the Destruction. The problem starts way before that: it is because something is missing from his heart altogether.

By contrast, one whose heart is spiritually alive during the rest of the year doesn’t have to exert himself to feel pain during the Nine Days; it is natural for him. He can cry [as he says the Kinnos] with almost no effort to do so.

To illustrate what we mean, when a woman has just lost her husband, anything that reminds her of her husband causes her to cry and feel pain over his loss. She doesn’t have to think about this all day in order for this to happen (if she would think about it the entire day, this is extreme behavior). As soon as she remembers her husband, she finds her tears natural, because her heart is already active.

If one has to exert himself in order to be able to cry and mourn, if he has to read a sefer that speaks about the tragedies of the destruction, filled with commentaries, and through this he awakens himself and gets himself to feel something, we cannot say that is pointless; it might awaken him a little. But it is like someone whose heart has stopped working and he gets a fake heart placed in him which acts mechanically.

If it needs to explained to him, if he has to read about it in order to strain his mind and think into it so that he can get himself to shed a tear, this is all proof that his heart isn’t activated during the rest of the year. There is something wrong with his heart. It’s not that he has a problem with the Nine Days. His lack of emotion during the Nine Days is simply a sign of his general situation throughout the year, which has much left to be desired.

A heart that is spiritually alive is the kind of heart we need to live with during the entire year. Such a life enables a person to feel the joy of the festivals, to feel the closeness to Hashem that can be attained during the Ten Days of Repentance, and to weep during the Nine Days.

It is clear to anyone that when someone has just lost a parent, when it is right before the funeral and he hasn’t even started yet the seven days of mourning, he is naturally in pain. Imagine if we have a person who is not the type to feel pain or cry, and it is brought to him a book which explains why he should feel pain over the loss of his parent, and it is told to him that he should study it in-depth, so that he can understand why he needs to feel the pain of the loss. We can all understand that something is very wrong here with this person.

So there is no piece of advice that can help you come to feel pain over the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash and to help you shed tears over it. There is a way, however, for you to open your heart during the course of the rest of the year – and if your heart has been opened during the year, then when the Nine Days arrive, you’ll naturally feel the pain you are supposed to feel and you will find it natural to cry.

Destruction On The Communal Level and On The Individual Level

Let’s go further.

The destruction of the Beis HaMikdash is a very obscure matter from us, something very far from us which we don’t understand. It is something that the Jewish people have been mourning about for thousands of years. But there are two dimensions to the destruction. There was destruction on the communal level, and there was also a destruction on an individual level.

The communal destruction was the fact that the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, for all generations to come. There was also an inner and more private destruction that took place to each person on an individual level: the Shechinah [Hashem’s presence] is no longer openly revealed in a person’s life. This is each person’s own private destruction.

If one does not lead a life in which the Beis HaMikdash is built in his heart and he does not feel pain over the absence of his own personal Beis HaMikdash, he won’t be able to suddenly feel the communal destruction of the Beis HaMikdash when Tisha B’Av comes.

If one does not recognize personally in himself what it means to have a Beis HaMikdash in oneself, if one doesn’t feel bad that it’s missing, he can’t suddenly feel pain when the Nine Days arrive. Even if one can get himself to feel pain, it might be because he has gotten emotional, but this is usually not a crying that comes from a deep place in the soul. One of our Gedolim said that just as our ears and nose produce excess fluid, so can our eyes produce excess fluid – in the form of tears. This doesn’t mean that all tears are useless, chas v’shalom; it means that not every tear that a person sheds is truthful.

The deepest place in our heart, its essence, is described in the verse, “The rock of my heart and my portion, is G-d.” The essence of our heart is covered over by many external layers. The external layer of our heart includes our various desires. As long as a person’s extraneous desires fill his heart, he can’t feel Hashem’s presence in his heart. And if he doesn’t feel Hashem’s presence in his heart, he does not know what it means to have a personal Beis HaMikdash within, and he will find it most difficult to feel pain and to cry during the Nine Days and Tisha B’Av.

If it bothers him that he doesn’t feel the pain he knows he should feel, this is a good sign; Baruch Hashem that he at least feels this. But how will he ever be able to cry over it? Can someone cry over something he has never really cared about?

A person cries about something he wanted and desired which he has either lost or hasn’t attained. The less a person wanted something, the less likely he is to cry over it if he loses it. If a person has a ratzon (will) to feel Hashem’s presence in his life, if he has a very deep desire to feel Him within himself, then when Tisha B’Av comes, at least he will be able to feel what he is personally missing in his life.

(This doesn’t yet mean he will feel the communal level of mourning, which is an entirely different matter that we hope to soon explain. But at least he will feel the destruction on a private and inner level.)

One who doesn’t feel Hashem in his heart during the rest of the year won’t suddenly change during the Nine Days. People do not change so fast. There is no way to suddenly change and become sensitive to spiritual feelings in such a short amount of time. The only way is for one to already have an active heart from during the rest of the year: to desire Hashem’s presence. If a person can relate to that during the rest of the year, he is at least connected to the inner world within him, and he will find it natural to feel mourning when the Nine Days arrive.

The Nine Days are a sign of what a person’s level is during the rest of the year. If one’s heart is already a bit open from the rest of the year, he can burst out in tears when he realizes how much he is missing. This, in and of itself, is already commendable.

Joy and Pain At Once

“When Av enters, joy is lessened.”[1] It is brought in Halachah that we do not build things during the month of Av, and we also do not engage in anything that gives us particular joy; additionally, we should not engage in unnecessary acts (There are exceptions according to Halacha when it affects one’s livelihood).

Why is it that a person should only do what’s necessary during Av? It is understandable if it is something that will bring joy. But why must we refrain from doing things during Av that are simply unnecessary?

The simple understanding is because it causes us to take our mind off mourning. But the deeper reason is as follows. When one removes his mind from mourning during the Nine Days, it really means that he is caught up in various pursuits of life.

The destruction of the Beis HaMikdash must cause us to cry, but we know that we cannot be this way during the rest of the year. We can’t go on with sadness for that long. So how does a person survive the Nine Days? We can simply say that a person can get himself to be sad for the duration of the nine days. If one is more spiritual and purified, he can feel sadness every night through reciting Tikkun Chatzos.

But the true perspective is totally different than the above approach.

We are capable of joy, and we are also capable of sadness, pain, and crying. One who has removed his superficial desires is able to feel both joy and sadness at once. We don’t mean that one day the person is sad and the next day he can feel joyous. Rather, there is a deep place in our soul which knows how to feel both joy and sadness at once. Sometimes either joy or sadness will dominate, but in essence, they can both be active at the same time.

When the festivals arrive, a person may be able to imagine that he is happy that the festival here. There are external factors which can give a person a superficial feeling of happiness on the festivals – such as meat and wine. After all, the Sages say that “There is no simcha (happiness) except in meat and wine.”[2] He might be able to get himself to be a little happy with such things. But if a person doesn’t know how to cry on Tisha B’Av, he does not know either how to be happy on Pesach!

The very soul in us which can feel pain is the very same soul in us which can feel joy. They are not separate aspects of our being; they stem from the same place in our soul. This is because each thing is comprised of itself and its opposite (“dovor v’hipucho”). Joy and happiness are opposites; in order to appreciate joy, you must know what sadness is, and in order to know what sadness is, you need to experience joy. Without knowing how to feel simcha, one does not know how to feel pain; if one does not know of pain, he will not know what it means to be truly happy.

David HaMelech said, “My heart is empty within me.” The sefer he wrote, sefer Tehillim, was written after he felt the empty space in his heart. In sefer Tehillim, many kinds of experiences are described. There were times that Dovid HaMelech felt lowly, times where he felt pain, and times where he felt joyous. It is well-known that sefer Tehillim contains all of the experiences that every Jew will ever go through. This was all due to Dovid HaMelech’s achievement of emptying out his heart from all desires, where he was left with nothing in his heart except for the desire for Hashem’s will. In that deep place in the heart, one can feel both joy and sadness there at once, and the contradicting emotions are both truthful.

During the month of Av, we lessen activities that are unnecessary, and the reason for this is not simply because we must not take our mind off the mourning of the Nine Days. Rather, it is because if a person has desires in his heart that are unnecessary, he cannot be connected to the concept of the Nine Days. His heart is far from where it is supposed to be.

From a superficial level, a person observes the halachos of the Nine Days. He opens up the Shulchan Aruch and finds out the halachah and he doesn’t do all the activities he normally does. It is certainly commendable that he follows halachah, but if this is his entire idea of mourning during the Nine Days, he has missed the boat. The whole reason why we refrain from certain activities during the Nine Days is because it is supposed to be used as a means to erase the unnecessary desires from our heart and live a truthful life, of “My heart is empty [from desires] within me.”

The deep place in our heart, which is removed from all unnecessary desires, is the place in us which can feel contradictory emotions at once. It can feel joy and sadness at once, and it is the place in the soul which enables a person to have true tears.

Getting Back Our Simplicity

Why is it that a child cries easily, whereas an adult doesn’t cry so fast? It is because a child lives in a simple reality. He simply has a desire for something, and if he doesn’t get it, he cries. An adult, though, has developed layers upon his soul. He has to dig deep into himself in order to bring out his emotions. If one lives in the simple point in his soul which feels like “an infant in its mother’s lap”, he naturally can feel joy and he can naturally feel pain, just as easily as he feels physical sensation.

The avodah of a person is not to work hard on himself to bring out his emotions in order to get himself to cry. That is not the way. The avodah is for a person to develop his heart in the first place. Once the heart is functioning properly, everything else will follow as a result. There will be natural emotions of joy when appropriate, and there will be natural emotions of sadness where appropriate. He will be a “ben ish chai”, a “living person”.

Thus, as we said in the beginning of the chapter, there is no advice that can guide a person to teach him how to mourn, in the time between the 29th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av. Even if one could teach himself how to cry by the time it comes the 9th of Av, the tears wouldn’t be coming from a truthful place in himself.

Nullifying Our Desires

There is only one way, and it is very simple, fundamental, and true. But it takes time, and it is not developed instantly. It is a way to live life, and it is not just for the Nine Days. It is for a person to remove his extra desires, on a constant basis, throughout the course of the year. The Sages said it: “Nullify your will before His will.”

A person should get used to keep nullifying his desires, one after one. The Chazon Ish says that every time a person breaks his will, it adds a stone to the courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash.

But if a person wants to remain with all of his desires, and he also wants to cry on Tisha B’Av, and he also wants to be happy on the festivals, and he also wants a perfect wife and perfect children and perfect health and perfect livelihood, and honor, and an outpouring of blessing in his life, and _____, then when the Nine Days come, he won’t be able to find himself at all amidst all of these desires.

The issue is very simple and fundamental: How does a person live during the rest of the year? We all have difficulties. But what is the root of all our difficulties? It is always one single reason: our various unfulfilled desires.

The only desire that we must seek to fulfill is the desire to do Hashem’s will! All desires other than this are not desires we need. Sometimes we do need to fulfill a certain desire we have, but even in such situations, it is only a means to a greater end. The only desire we need to have is “Our will is to do Your will.” All other desires need to be eliminated, one by one, slowly and in steps.

If one is motivated to do this throughout the course of the year, he should so with the attitude that this is our life’s task. Thus, each year when it comes Tisha B’Av, this must cause a person to feel a deeper degree of the destruction. The tears will then flow freely and naturally, as an automatic result. But this will only happen when a person realizes that life is all about giving up our desires for Hashem, and to replace all of our desires with one single desire alone: the desire to do Hashem’s will.

Using Suffering To Rid Ourselves of Desires

Now we will try to explain how we can practically work on this.

The Gemara says that when a person puts his hand into his pocket and he doesn’t find money there, this is a form of suffering. If he wanted two coins and he only found one coin, this is a degree of suffering. Let us contemplate what the depth of the suffering is.

The Beis HaMikdash was destroyed because of sin. The first Beis HaMikdash was destroyed due to the three cardinal sins of murder, adultery, and idol worship. The second Beis HaMikdash was destroyed due to baseless hatred.[3]

The Sages say that suffering takes away the effect of sin. How does this work? Why does suffering take away the effect of a sin? A sin means that a person has actualized a negative desire. How is a sin rectified? If the person has stole, he must return that which he stole. But with other sins, how does a person undo what he did?

Suffering takes away the root of the problem of the sin. The person had a desire to sin, and that was why he sinned. With suffering, the root of the sin can be uprooted, because the person’s desire for the sin has been removed, through the suffering. Suffering goes against our will; we don’t want it. Accepting suffering with love and with emunah helps us get rid of our desire for the sin.

Therefore, suffering only atones for the sin if the person’s desire for the sin has been removed. Sometimes people go through physical suffering but he remains unchanged. He still has the same desire to sin, and he might even have stronger desires for the sin, because he is waiting for his suffering to pass so that he can go fulfill his desires. Suffering doesn’t always make a person change his desires.

The desires in a person destroy a person’s own “personal Beis HaMikdash”.[4] They are like a strange god living inside the person. This is not an idea that comes from a derasha. It is absolutely a reality. The fact that the Shechinah dwells in each person’s heart is not an idea – it is reality. The only thing that holds back that revelation from a person is his desires. When a person removes the desires, G-dliness is revealed in the person.

How can a person know if he is going on the right path or not? If he sees that he is succeeded in getting rid of some of his desires and he feels that he is closer to doing Hashem’s will, this is a sign that his soul is becoming healthier.

Anything that we seek to acquire needs intention in order to acquire. In order for the heart to be acquired, one must break his desires. But it must be done with the intention that one is trying to reveal his inner will of the soul (the will to do Hashem’s will). When a person succeeds in breaking a desire, he can feel purer afterwards; he can feel like something has been cleared from his system.

Inspiration Vs. Building Our Life

We need to change the root of how we view life; to wonder how we are supposed to live to begin with. Baruch Hashem, when it comes the night of Tisha B’Av, there are lecturers, and sometimes it helps a little. Sometimes the speaker will inspire himself as he is speaking, and then others will be inspired with him, as a result. But it is clear that something is very much missing here. One cannot build his life based upon one derasha!

A derasha does almost nothing for a person. A derasha remains a derasha, and the truth remains the truth. A derasha can only inspire a person minimally. What more do we need to hear\read in order for us to change our perspective in life? Inspiration is gone as soon as it comes. It has a very fleeting effect.

The issue is how to live to begin with, from the very start! We should not be interested in inspiration. The question is how we should live life to begin with – to wonder how a proper life should look like from the very start. [5]

I was once in a place where I spoke to some boys who had become irreligious (may G-d have mercy on them). I said to them whatever it is that I had to say to them, and then one of the boys said to me, “You are giving me solutions that work for me after I’ve fallen. But what is the solution before I fall?”

People want to know why kids are ‘going off the derech’. But nobody ‘went off the derech’. They were never on the derech to begin with! There was never a “derech” that they were on to begin with to fall off of it.

We must have a “derech” (way) in how to live life to begin with! Speeches and inspiring lectures won’t do it for us. What people really need is to make a soul-accounting and get to the root, and wonder: how should we live life from the very start?

Imagine if a man gets married and he finds out that his wife is mentally unstable (G-d forbid). He goes to his Rav and tells him the story. The Rav is in doubt if the marriage was ever valid to begin with. It’s not that there was a marriage here and now he will have to get divorced. There was never a marriage here to begin with!

You are all past the age of 30 already. You’ve all heard many derashos in your life; some of them were very true and some were less true, but the issue really is if you can get to the root of how to live life. We must understand that our life is not about gathering knowledge. Rabbeinu Yonah writes that if one is on a path that is not good, he must get himself off the path and take a new path. If something was wrong in a person’s life from the start, even living 1000 years and hearing derashos and amassing all that much knowledge will be nothing. A person can do many mitzvos yet his heart doesn’t change inside. We see that people have been davening and putting on tefillin for many years yet they don’t feel a thing from it.

Reb Chatzkel Levenstein zt”l would say, “People have been listening to me speak for 20 years, but they haven’t even begun to understand what I mean.” When a person’s heart is closed, nothing he hears will change him.

Utilizing Tisha B’Av To Its Fullest

All of the times of the year Hashem gave to us are here as a reminder to ask ourselves if we are living life in the right way to begin with; if we are living a life of building ourselves. The Nine Days are also such a time. It is a time where we need to bring our life to halt and wonder how we can build our soul. It takes time to build the soul, just like it takes time to build the Beis HaMikdash. In order for a person to build himself, he must bring his life to a halt and make a self-accounting on how to live life to begin with.

On Tisha B’Av, it is forbidden to learn Torah. What does a person do with his free time on Tisha B’Av? Baruch Hashem, there’s Kol HaLashon, or you can go to the speeches that are in town, which is filled with men and women who are all willing to listen to the speaker. But what is the point of Tisha B’Av?? Why was this day given to us? We can’t learn Torah, we can’t do any labor, so what are we supposed to do with ourselves on this day? Think about the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash? That is true, but the depth of Tisha B’Av is to bring our life to a halt and empty ourselves out of all desires.

We can’t even learn Torah, which is the most important desire to have (other than the desire to do Hashem’s will). We are supposed to just bring our lives to a halt and we begin to think of a new life for ourselves!

Find a quiet place, and reflect, from a silent place within yourself. The Nine Days, and especially Tisha B’Av, are a time to reflect and to bring the routine of life to a halt, and ask ourselves how to live life from the start. Tisha B’Av is not a time to seek what is ‘permissible’ to do and which parts of Torah are ‘permissible’ to learn. It is a time to bring all of your life to a halt. If one seeks truth, he must wonder, as he reflects, on how he can rebuild his life anew.

Quiet Time Every Day To Reflect

Besides for Tisha B’Av, one needs to have set times every day where one can reflect about the purpose of life. People might think they know what the purpose of life is, but a person can keep uncovering deeper meaning to the purpose of life every day, when he reflects quietly on this each day with inner silence. If one “doesn’t have any time” to do this, this is an inner destruction.

It is not only on Tisha B’Av and the Nine Days that you should do this. Every day, a person needs to have times where he reflects about the purpose of life and to think if he’s going in the right direction[6]. If you come to the conclusion that you are going in the way of Torah and mitzvos, keep going in that direction. But if you discover that this is not the case, you need to wonder how you can come to live a more truthful life.

This is what you need to do, each day, in order to acquire “purity of heart” and rid your heart from desires, which enables you to reach the point of “My heart is empty within me” as Dovid HaMelech said; and when your heart is slowly emptied from all of the desires, you can eventually come to the point where you have only one desire alone in your heart – the desire to do Hashem’s will.

Of course, our heart is purified from learning Torah and doing the mitzvos. But more specifically, it comes from nullifying our desires, until a person only has one desire left: the desire to do Hashem’s will.

Sincere Tears

When a person reaches that inner silence and he is in touch with the inner will of his soul (to do Hashem’s will), he can come to a true and inner crying that comes from the depths of his soul, from the pure point in the soul that only feels Hashem’s will. In that deep place in himself, he can feel how Hashem is mourning over His children who have been exiled from Him, who have “left their father’s table.” He won’t even have to strain himself to cry, because the tears will flow freely and naturally.

In Conclusion

Hashem gave us all bechirah (free will), and the free will was given to us so that we can choose to set aside time every day to reflect on how to live a truthful life. Just like a baal teshuvah changes his entire life when he leaves his world behind and he enters the world of Torah, so must an already frum person raised in the world of Torah go deeper into himself and enter a new world within him.

It might not always be easy and pleasant to make a self-accounting every day, but this is the only way of how we can live a truthful life and come to rebuild the personal Beis HaMikdash within ourselves.

I really hope that these words have been truly understood, not as a derasha, not as inspiration, and not even as preparation for the Nine Days; rather, that they be perceived as a way to live our life from the start.

[1] Taanis 29a

[2] Pesachim 109a

[3] Yoma 9b

[4] See Nefesh HaChaim – Gate I

[5] See Getting To Know Your Happiness #011 – Raising Happy Children

[6] Ramchal in sefer Derech Eretz Chaim. See Bilvavi_ Part_ 4_ Chapter_ 3

Growing at the Bottom of the Heap

Finding Oneself on the Bottom
There are many hierarchies in our world. Three of the hierarchies discussed in Torah sources are those of wealth, wisdom and spiritual performance. Two others that come to mind are spiritual heritage and the merits of our children.

Sometimes strength in one hierarchy, like wealth or wisdom, compensates for weakness in another. A person might choose to live in a community where Torah knowledge and spiritual performance standards are lower, so that they can comfortably reach the middle or the top of the hierarchy. However, viewing ourselves at the bottom of a hierarchy is a tool for growth.

Pursuing Honor is an Attempt to Escape the Bottom
In the Mesillas Yesharim chapter on “The Details of Cleanliness”, the Ramchal discusses taking both our mitzvos and character traits to the next level. He discusses the chief traits that we need to work on, namely, pride, anger, envy, and desire.

When discussing desire, he doesn’t talk about the base desires that usually come to mind, rather the desire for wealth and the desire for honor. In regard to the desire for honor, the Ramchal states:

The desire for honor is even greater than the desire for wealth, for it is possible for a person to overcome his inclination for wealth and the other pleasures and still be pressed by the desire for honor, being unable to tolerate being, and seeing himself beneath his friends.

The desire for honor is so strong, because we are unable to tolerate being, and seeing ourselves beneath our friends. We are uncomfortable being towards the bottom of the heap.

Using our Distaste for the Bottom to Motivate Growth

In the chapter on the “Acquiring Watchfulness”, the Ramchal discusses motivators for spiritual growth. He discusses three levels:

1) those who are striving for perfection
2) those motivated by honor and envy
3) those motivated by reward and punishment

In relation to honor and envy, he explains that we since find it extremely difficult when we are on a lower level in regard to the vanities of this world, how much more difficult it will be to find ourselves on the bottom in the eternal world of truth. Distaste for the bottom should motivate us to embrace spiritual growth now.

The Ramban Tells Us to Embrace Bottomhood

To overcome the trait of honor we need to be ok with being at the bottom of the hierarchy. In fact in the Iggeres HaRamban, when discussing how to work on the trait of humility, the Ramban says:

Consider everyone as greater than yourself. If he is wise or rich, you should give him respect. If he is poor and you are richer — or wiser — than he, consider yourself to be more guilty than he, and that he is more worthy than you, since when he sins it is through error, while yours is deliberate and you should know better!

In regard to the hierarchies of wealth, wisdom and spiritual accomplishment, we should actively figure out how we are lower than every person to whom we speak. Not an easy task, but humility is the art of seeing yourself at the bottom.

Humility Before Hashem

One might ask why did Hashem create the world with so many hierarchies and our strong distaste for being near the bottom? My Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchak Kirzner zt”l taught that relationships between people are often training grounds for our relationship with Hashem. Developing humility among people, enables us to be more humble before Hashem and to realize that although we must make our efforts, He is the ultimate source of everything we have.

In the chapter on the “Divisions of Saintliness”, the Ramchal writes that before we pray or perform a mitzvah we should recognize that we are standing before and communicating with our Creator, that Hashem is elevated and raised above all blessing and praise, and that man is inferior due to his earthly qualities and the sins he commits.

Growing at the Bottom

Hashem has created a world of hierarchies and we have a strong distaste for being at the bottom. Our goal is to embrace the bottom, strengthen our humility, and recognize this is the place of our growth. Acknowledging this makes us beloved in the eyes of Hashem and enables us to find pleasure as we take our next growth steps in Torah, Tefillah, Mitzvos, Acts of Kindness and Middos improvement.

Rav Shimshon Pincus zt”l on “Taste and See that Hashem is Good”

From Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh – Part 4 – Reviewing Basic Goals

There is a story told over about Reb Aryeh Leib Malin zt”l that once a young boy asked him a certain question in learning, and when he told him the answer, the boy didn’t understand. After many times of trying to explain the answer and being unsuccessful, Reb Malin zt”l told him the following: “I can explain it to you from all different kinds of angles until you understand it. But I can’t give you my level of grasp.” (He was not referring to sharpness or memory, but clear understanding).

Once, Rav Shimshon Pincus zt”l came to a yeshiva to speak, and in middle, he said the following: “I can talk and explain a lot, but believe me: If you would only know what it is to feel like when a person lives with Hashem in his life, you would run after it, after I explain to you how you can get there. You don’t understand how much darkness you are in, what you are missing in life, and how far you are from the truth, from “taste and see that Hashem is good.”

He continued: “And you should also know that even if you would ask me how you can taste that feeling, I wouldn’t be able to give it to you. Hashem did not give me the power to be able to give over what it tastes like – the taste of true d’veykus with Hashem.”

Everyone has special times in which they feel themselves growing spiritually and enjoying this. However, people come to imagine that such elation is supposed to be every second, and that this is what it means to be close to Hashem all the time.

This is a mistake! Being close to Hashem is unlike anything you recognize from until now. A person can live all the time with closeness to Hashem, or chas v’shalom, the opposite. A person has to decide, with total conviction, with clarity, if he truly wants to let Hashem enter his heart.

This is the meaning of, “Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh” – “In my heart, I will build a sanctuary.” It is to truly live with Hashem. It is not merely about thinking about how Hashem is next to us, or to put the four-letter Name of Hashem in front of us all the time. These are superficial methods, as they does not define being close to Hashem. Being close to Hashem means that Hashem is found within one’s heart.

We cannot really explain what it is to anyone who hasn’t reached it yet. But what we can all do is to firmly believe that it is possible to attain, just as all the other tzaddikim in the past reached – and lived – closeness with Hashem.

Once Reb Moshe of Kobrin zt”l said that if lustful people would only know how enjoyable it is to be close to Hashem, they would give up that fake, physical pleasure for the real thing – an intimate closeness with Hashem, which is true pleasure.

In fact, all the various loves that people have on this world, besides for a love for Hashem, is fake love. People who don’t have a love for Hashem haven’t tasted what true love is.[5]

This is the way Hashem made the world; as long as a person remains outside the world of closeness with Hashem, he will never attain it – not even a tiny bit of that inner world.

The way to get our inward reality is through emunah. Part of emunah is to have faith in the many leaders throughout all the generations, faith in their students and in their students who came after them. With faith in our leaders, we can believe the words of the Chazon Ish who wrote that it’s possible for a person at times to temporarily resemble an angel even as one stands on this physical earth, and that such a feeling cannot be expressed to anyone. This is the true feeling of being close to Hashem.

If a person believes in this, he will then be able to truly feel, in a very real way and not in his imagination, a simple feeling no that is no less that how one can feel a table or a chair: that there is a Creator of the world. If a person believes that there is such a feeling he can experience, and he decides to live his life for this goal, closeness to Hashem – he leaves this world of darkness, and enters into a world that is radiant.

If the reader is still doubtful at this point about the words here, then there is no proof we can bring to convince him otherwise. But one thing we can ask of him: For your own sake, and for the sake of the Jewish people, and for the sake of giving your Creator a satisfaction, cry to Hashem every day, hour after hour, and ask Him that he guide you to the truth. If a person really begs Hashem for this, and if he really wants it, Hashem will surely help him get to the truth, that he be able to give a nachas ruach (satisfaction) to Hashem all his life.

[5] Editor’s Note: Of course, this is not to negate the love we are supposed to have to people, especially to those who are dearest to us, such as our families and friends. It appears that intention of the author is that once a person tastes love of Hashem, his own love will deepen, and his relationships will deepen as a result (see “Heart of the Jewish Woman”). As for having a like towards various worldly pleasures, it is clear that love for these things is just indulgence and cannot be considered love in the first place.

Turning the Tables on the Constant Test of Summertime Immodesty

By Rabbi Yonah Levant

The 1st Mishna is Pirkei Avos, Chapter 2 says:
Rabbi [Yehuda haNasi] said:…
Be careful with a minor mitzvah (commandment) as with a major one, for you do not know the reward for the mitzvos. Consider the loss incurred for performing a mitzvah compared to its reward, and the ‘reward’ received for sinning compared to the loss….

The two parts of the Mishnah, the encouragement to keep mitzvos, and the steeling oneself to avoid aveirah, seem to be distinct and can be fully understood independent of each other. It seems.

I saw a chiddush (novel insight) that manages to link the סוֹר מרע (turn away from bad) with the עשה טוב (do good) in a way that can have a very big impact on a person’s entire relationship to Hashem.

This is based on what we all intuitively know – that it is most worthwhile to daven to Hashem during an עת רצון (time of divine favor). “Worthwhile,” in terms of having one’s tefilos heard and accepted. The Ohr HaChaim on the pasuk ואתחנן אל ה’ בעת ההיא לאמר (and I davened to Hashem in that time saying) explains that the בעת ההיא (in that time) meant that it was an עת רצון (time of divine favor), and that is why Moshe davened then. Moshe knew when it was an עת רצון (time of divine favor) and he took full advantage to daven then.

Wouldn’t we love to know when there is an עת רצון (time of divine favor), or better yet, be able to create such a thing, by ourselves!

Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein shlita of Bnei Brak quotes the Ba’al Sefer Shomer Emunim who says that whenever one does a mitzvah, it is an עת רצון (time of divine favor). And especially when one sees inappropriate scenes, pritsus (immodesty), and one looks away with proper שמירת עיניים (guarding of one’s eyes) , that creates a עת רצון (time of divine favor) such that your tefillos will certainly be accepted by Hashem.

What does this mean to us? What does it mean to us who live in a very degraded generation in terms of tsnius (modesty), and what does it mean to us in terms of our lives as Jews, in the Big Picture.

Before this insight, a person might feel overwhelmed by a non-tsnius (immodest) world, especially in the summer, where one is put to the test all the time. A person might end up feeling aggravated endlessly, that the world is so antagonistic to Torah observance. You can’t look around and walk around like a normal person. You always have to be on edge, like in a battle.

And Shemiras Aynayim (guarding ones eyes) is a tricky business, since willpower doesn’t stop your optic nerve from working! The Ran in Nedarim says (I don’t have the source location) “אבל עיניו ואזניו של אדם אינם ברשותו, שהרי על כרחו יראח בעיניו ובאזניו ישמע.” – (but the eyes and ears of a man are not his possession, because one sees with his eyes and hears with his ears, even when he doesn’t want to). So, it’s a mitzvah where you practically start off on the wrong foot all the time! You see something inappropriate and only then do you look away.

If you need to be on the street, or driving, etc. you can’t prevent your eye from seeing something un-tsnius (immodest) if it (or her) steps right in front of you. The chiyuv (obligation) is obviously to look away immediately. So, it is a nisayon (test) of great proportions, considering that a healthy human being is not Parev (neutral) about these things. It pulls at a person’s very base nature. If the mitzvah of Shemiras Aynayim (guarding ones eyes) was to avoid looking at wool, it would be much easier to observe, even though wool is also everywhere! Nobody has a deep desire for looking at wool!

So, a person can be exhausted and aggravated from the ongoing nisayon (test) , even if he is successful! Or, chas v’shalom (G-d forbid), a person can give up the fight, and not keep the mitzvah, and abandon that level of kedushah (holiness) that Hashem wants of every single Yid.

With the insight of the Shomer Emunim, a person can change each nisayon (test) of Shemiras Aynayim (and any other aveirah nisayon (trangression test)) into an opportunity for tremendous dveykus (closeness) to Hashem. When one looks away, one can proclaim “Hashem, I am yours, I do not belong to the street! And since I am yours, and since I am overcoming my desires, for You, please help me with…” A person can become Davek to Hashem amidst the shmutz of our world. A person can grow, because of the opportunity hidden within the nisayon (test). “I am not looking Hashem, because I am yours! I am not theirs!”

Rav Zilberstein in his sefer טובך יביעו ח”ב עמ’סח quotes an unnamed Godol who said that a person who doesn’t practice Shemiras Aynayim sullies his davening and learning which require Kedushah. But it also robs him of his ability to get real pleasure and sweetness from learning, and davening, and the like.

You essentially end up switching the forbidden pleasure for the pleasure Hashem wanted you to have in dveykus (closeness) with Him through a geshmak (wonderful feeling) in learning, a heartfelt davening, etc.

I think it was the Steipler Gaon zatzal who was quoted (2008 Men’s tsnius asifah in Lakewood, Rav Wachsman drosho) as saying that when a person foregoes a forbidden pleasure, because of Hashem’s Will, then he will get a תשלומים, an equivalent, a replacement pleasure through Avodas Hashem. He will find real pleasure, real earthly pleasure in davening, or learning, or some other kosher venue. You will not lose out, says the Steipler Gaon.

Let us all try to turn this constant test into an opportunity to have our prayers answered, especially in this troubling time.

Why Doesn’t the Segulah of Tzitzis Work?

Why are so many segulos ineffective?
In particular why doesn’t fulfilling the Mitzvah of tzitzis transform us into spiritual supermen, as promised by the Torah?

These shall be your fringes and when you look at them, you’ll remember all the commandments of HaShem, and do them; and will not [continue to] go astray [following] after your own heart and your own eyes, which [have had the ability to this point of] leading you to immorality.  So that you will remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your Elokim.

—BeMidbar 15:39,40

 “So that you will may remember and do all My commandments.” This is comparable to one thrown into the raging waters to whom the ship’s captain flung a rope. The captain told [the man thrown overboard]  “grasp this rope in your hands and don’t let go for if you do  … you’re a goner.” Similarly, the Holy Blessed One told Israel: “as long as you hold fast to the mitzvos [you will live] [as it says] ‘And [only] you who cling to HaShem your Elokim are all alive today’ (Devarim4:4). And it says ‘Take fast hold of mussar-reprimands /moral instruction; don’t let go; guard her, for she is your life.’ (Mishlei 4:13)”

—Midrash Rabbah BeMidbar17:6

 In this allegory the life-preserving rope represent the strands of the tzitzis-fringes. Through them, we remember HaShem’s commandments and do not “drown” in the “raging waters” of malicious transgressions.

—Commentary of Rav Dovid Luria ibid

 Antigonus ish Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: “Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of receiving reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of receiving reward. And the awe of Heaven should be upon you.”

—Pirkei Avos 1:3

We live in an era when the ideal of serving HaShem with no ulterior motives has become almost passé.  As one wit put it “How did the Ahm Segulah become the Ahm Segulos?” It seems as though almost every worthy cause and endeavor is marketed as a “you scratch My Back and I’ll scratch yours” tradeoff kivyachol-as it were; with HaShem … Many people grow bitter and disappointed when, despite their best efforts at adhering to the segulah-prescribed practices, the promised yeshuos-deliverances; never come about.

Yet distinctions must be made between latter day segulos of unripened vintage and of dubious provenance and segulos that appear in the Gemara — or in the Chumash itself. For notwithstanding Antigonus ish Socho’s admonitions for completely selfless, non self-serving avodas HaShem-serving G-d; there are many mitzvah practices whose promised rewards are, in fact, guaranteed by the Gemara or in the Chumash.

Apart from the article of our faith that, in a general sense, observance of the Torah’s commandments reaps rewards (while transgressions evokes Divine retribution in the form of punishments); there is a lengthy causality list linking particular mitzvos and areas of Torah study to earning specific rewards: “Length of days” for honoring parents or shooing the mother bird away from the nest before taking the eggs or hatchlings, bountiful crops in the years preceding the Sabbatical and Jubilee years in consideration of scrupulous halachic observance of those years, wealth for proper tithing and offspring who are Talmidei Chachamim-Torah sages; in exchange for care and concern in the kindling of mitzvah lamps/candles — to name but a few.

Still another distinction must be made between activities that are mesugal– supposed to cause material benefits to accrue; and those that are mesugal for spiritual advances, greater intellectual acuity and / or ethical edification.  This last category comes a lot closer to Antigonus ish Socho’s paradigm than those segulos that promise temporal benefits.

Rav Shmuel Dov Asher Lainer, The Biskovitzer Rebbe, maintains that the mitzvah of tzitzis–ritual fringes on four-cornered garments; is a segulah for comprehensive tzidkus-righteousness/ saintliness. Moreover, this segulah is explicitly described by the Torah. After all, the pasuk says that when we see our tzitzis we recall all of HaShem’s commandments and, knowing that they are commandments, not non-compulsory suggestions, and that we are the commanded, how could we do anything but carry out our Divine orders? Thus, the pasuk concludes with the promise/ prediction … “and you will do them.”

The Biskovitzer then poses a very pointed, but rather obvious question.  Why doesn’t this segulah work? One would be hard pressed to find a self-described Torah-observant Jew who does not perform the mitzvah of tzitzis regularly. So why are true tzadikim-righteous/ saintly people; i.e. those who both recall and keep all of HaShems mitzvos and who resist all petty temptations, so few and far between?

This question is of far more than mere philosophical or exegetical interest. For if a Torah guaranteed segulah does not fulfill its promise it can bear the toxic fruits of disillusionment, bitterness and doubt.  To paraphrase Einstein; the definition of skepticism is repeating the same experiment that worked so well in the past over and over again without yielding the expected results.

A close reading of the Midrash , writes the Biskovitzer, provides us with the answer.

If we viewed tzitzis as the sage of the Midrash does the segulah of tzitzis would prove effective and deliver on its promise to make us righteous and saintly.  But, instead, we are willfully blind to the life-rope / breathing-tube that a Merciful and Paternal Providence flings our way providing us with the means to escape the clutches of sin-cum-death.

The paramount rule of Divine Administration of all creation is midah k’neged midah-quid pro quo. For good or for bad; for better or for worse; HaShems rewards and punishments are not merely just, but are informed by poetic justice.  So if we refuse to see the real nature of HaShem’s mitzvos, i.e. that they are the lifelines that tether us to Him  … the Life of all lives, then, in return, HaShem blinds us to the reality of the temporal world and its temptations. Instead of seeing raging cataracts of sin tossing us willy-nilly and threatening to inundate us once and for all, we perceive the world as safe, tranquil and secure natural-habitat.

If the man thrown overboard were delusional; if he continued to breathe easy — imagining that he was still on the deck of the ship in calm, windless waters, he too would reject the rope the captain flung him. Unaware of the danger and the means of escaping danger at his disposal we would, tragically, drown.

This, concludes the Biskovitzer, is why not everyone who wears a tallis metzuyetzes-a fringe bearing four-cornered garment; is, perforce, a tzaddik recalling and scrupulously observing all the mitzvos of the Torah immune to all of the attractions that lead people astray.

We do not lose faith in the segulah of tzitzis because it fails to work — it fails to work because we fail to believe in what the tzitzis truly are.

 

—Neos Deshe Parshas Shelach D”H Dahber

Bshalach 5774-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK

 

Blessed with Diamonds From Rabbi Miller

Rabbi Avigdor Miller ztz”l was one of the pioneers of taping and diseminitating shiurim and writing seforim for the English speaking public. I listened to his tapes and read some of his books, but I wouldn’t have called myself a chassid. That has changed.

TorasAvidgor.org has been producing a weekly parsha booklet, taken directly from the words of Rav Miller. Each parsha booklet is based on a wide range of the Rav’s tapes and seforim, and is edited slightly to allow for easier reading. For me, every week has been a homerun! It’s longer than the average parsha sheet, but it is packed with amazing ideas that you can actually implement.

Last week it discussed the idea that when we bless others, G-d blesses us, as G-d promised to Avraham, “I will bless those that bless you” (Bereishis 12:3). In the gemora Chullin (49a), Rav Nachman bar Yitzchok teaches that when the Kohanim bless the Jews, Hashem blesses them, and this applies to any Jew or non-Jew at any time. The gemora there learns that even if a non-Jew says “Good Morning”, he will receive a blessing.

Rabbi Miller teaches that if you say “Yasher koi’ach” with some thought of the meaning – “May your strength increase”, then you’re davening for him! Rabbi Miller continues: “Those words now have an entirely different power. And we’re learning now that it’s not going to remain unanswered – in your own life! You’re going to get a blessing for that too. In the measure by which you bless others, that’s how much you will be blessed.”

“You’re walking on the street on Shabbos and you say, “Good Shabbos, good Shabbos.” All day long you’re passing by people and wishing them well. And then you pass by and forget all about it. It’s a tragedy to waste the opportunity! So five paces later say “Good Shabbos” to him again. This time he doesn’t hear it. But this time you mean it more.

“And under your breath you should add the peirush hamilos – with a few peirushim! How much thought, how many blessings could be included in a good Shabbos! “Your meals should be geshmak; your wife’s challah and kugel should taste exceptional.” “Hashem should help you enjoy your family.” “You should have a good Shabbos nap and be matzliach in your learning over Shabbos.” “You should get shlishi and it shouldn’t cost you too much money!” There’s so much to think about when you wish somebody a good Shabbos.”

“But there is something else here that is very important – maybe even more important than what you just heard – and that is to rejoice in somebody else’s happiness; to have an actual love for the Am Yisroel – a love that causes you to desire the happiness of others.”

“Hakodosh Boruch Hu loves His people more than anything else. And so when we fill our days with blessing the Am Yisroel because we love them, we are fulfilling the mitzvah d’oraisah of v’halachta b’drachav – “And you should walk in the ways of Hashem”.

“If you want to become a big ba’al dei’ah, a ba’al machshava, a ba’al emunah, then there’s a lot of work to be done. In order to achieve middos tovos, to acquire good character, there’s training you must follow, a lot of important things. And they’re not easy, but they’re worth the effort.

But I’m not proposing that for all of you right now; I’m saying easier things. We’re learning here about an achievement that is immensely easy. And the profit is immensely great. And that is the career of blessing fellow Jews. Now, when I say career, I mean that you must take the ideas that you’re studying here tonight, impress them upon your minds, and consider how to incorporate them into your regular practice, your regular routine of life. Because with a little bit of thought and some planning, you can live a life of “I will bless those who bless you”. Because, tell me, what difficulty lies in this exercise of good character? Nothing really! It’s one of the easiest things in the world to do – to bless your fellow Jew.”

“Let’s make it clear to ourselves that this is what we’re in this world for. We’re here to pick up all those diamonds on the floor. That’s our purpose. When a person is discouraged as he walks through the diamond fields, so he’s thinking that he has rachmanus on himself, he has pity on his status in life – “If only this would have happened;” “If only I would be in his shoes” – so he walks through life not even looking where he’s going”

Please read the whole article at https://torasavigdor.org/parshas-naso-blessing-his-beloved-people/

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An Ambidextrous Theology

Why is the Sotah’s case adjudicated through trial by watery potion?

Why do kohanim put their hands together when bestowing the priestly blessing?

He [the kohen] will then make the [suspected adulteress] woman drink the bitter curse-bearing waters and they will begin to take effect. ~BeMidbar 5:24

Speak to Ahron and his sons, saying: This is how you must bless the Bnei Yisrael-the Nation of Israel.  Say to them … ~BeMidbar 6:23

Your right Hand O HaShem is awe-inspiring in strength, Your right Hand O HaShem pounds the enemy … You stretched out Your right Hand the earth swallowed them. ~Shemos15:7,12  

Another interpretation (of the repetition of “Your right Hand) When the Bnei Yisrael perform the Will of G-d they transform the left into the right. But when they don’t, they transform the right to left as the pasuk (Eichah 2:3) says “He has drawn back His right Hand from before the enemy” ~Mechilta on Shirah Parshah 5

And he said: … I saw HaShem sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by Him on His right Hand and on his Left. ~Melachim  I 22:19

Does G-d have a left Hand/Side? [How could this be] when the pasuk states “HaShem’s right hand is exalted; the right hand of HaShem performs valiantly.” (Tehillim 118:16) [implying that, kivyachol -as it were; there are two Divine right Hands but no left Hand at all]. Rather [the meaning is] those Angels that advocate for clemency and mercy are described as being on the Right while those angels that prosecute and demand retribution are described as being on the Left.  ~Rashi ibid

Rabi Shmuel bar Nachman said “Woe to the wicked who transform the right into left ….and the righteous who transform left to right are commendable ~Bereshis Rabbah 73:2

[Do not divert from the ruling of the Judges] either right or left: Even if this judge tells you that right is left, and that left is right [believe them]! ~Rashi to Devarim 17:10,11 from Sifri

For the vast majority of human beings (estimates range from 70-95% of the population) who are right-handed, their left hand is the weaker and less nimble of their two hands. This statistic is reflected in our traditional Theology. In Jewish thought the middah-Divine trait for administration of creation; of Chessed– lovingkindness; is identified with the right side/ arm while the middah of Gevurah-rigor/ justice- untempered-by-mercy/retribution; is identified with the left side/ arm.   This is because the middah of Chessed is relatively stronger, kivyachol-as it were; than the middah of GevurahChessed is, kivyachol, HaShem’s “original” intent and antedates His administration of His creation, it is the middah that informs His very Creative process itself.  In the words of the psalmist “For I have said: ‘For the olam– cosmos; is built through Chessed” (Tehillim 89:3)

Gevurah is sometimes viewed as Chessed’s handmaiden; meant to add traction and heft to Chessed. The principle of nahama d’kisufa-“the bread of shame”; teaches that were Gevurah not even a possibility then the unearned gifts of Chessed heaped upon the recipients would humiliate them.

Alternatively, Gevurah is deemed to be obstructed, frustrated Chessed. One great late-twentieth century thinker explained the relationship between the two middos allegorically. When one throws a ball in a certain direction the throwers expectation is that the ball will run its course in the same direction that he threw it.  If a sudden impediment, e.g. a wall, springs up in the balls path the ball will not merely fall to the ground, it will boomerang back in the opposite direction, but with less force and velocity.  Our own misdeeds (or sinful thoughts or words) are barriers to the Divine “plan A” kivyachol of bestowing favor and blessing. The frustrated, impeded Chessed that could not run its course and reach its target ricochets and manifests itself as Rigor and Retributive Justice.

The disciples of the Izhbitzer school taught that our sidrah provide examples of the right “becoming” left, i.e. of Chessed and Rachamim-mercy; becoming Gevurah and Din-justice and vice versa.

There are infinite possibilities for miracles. In TeNaK”h we find miraculous Divine retributions as diverse as the 10 plagues, a gaping orifice in the earth’s crust, incendiary fire-and-brimstone carpet-bombing and tumbling city walls; to name but a few. Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, addresses an unarticulated question about the sotah-the suspected adulteress: As she is tried and, if found guilty, punished, by miraculous means why is the medium of her punishment water, davka-in particular?

To understand the Lubliner Kohen’s answer we must first examine the deeper insights that he offers into the symbolism of water and dehydration and into the antithetical natures of Chessed and Gevurah.

Water is the source of all enjoyment and pleasure. The Gan Eiden-the Garden of Pampering Pleasures; is identified with the four great rivers whose headwaters originate there and with the rain-giving cloud that rises from it.  Idiomatically things that are pleasure giving are often described as juicy, zaftig-full of sap; or having lachluchis-moisture. Conversely, the most austere and pleasureless of all terrains are deserts. The great desert to the south of Eretz Yisrael-the land of Israel; is known as the Negev.  Literally, this means the dehydrated place. In modern Ivrit the word for a towel is magevet as it is meant to dry out and dehydrate the surface it is drawn over.

And so, when  pursuits of pleasure are perverted and exploited by the wicked and sinful it is considered an abuse of the very nature of water. It has often been said that we are not punished for our sins — but by them, and, as such, middah k’neged middah-quid pro quo; those whose sins are derived from ta’avah-lusty, sinful hedonism; are punished via water. The generation of the Great Flood (all flesh has perverted its way upon the earth) and Egyptian civilization (the nakedness of the earth/ land) at the Sea of Reeds were both annihilated via water.  These are case histories of the wicked transforming right of Chessed-waters into left.

In stark contrast, the Bnei Yisrael, whose kedushah-holiness; derives in great part from their chaste moderation in the pursuit of pleasure, merited having the Sea of Reeds “tear” i.e. part to let them past.  This hearkens back to the Genesis narrative when Gevurah cleaved the waters for the first time as HaShem decreed: “there shall be a firmament (rekeea) in the middle of the waters that will divide between waters and waters.” (Bereshis 1:6) [Maimonides, in his commentary to mishnayos, (Avos 5:8 ) opines that the miracle of the tearing of the Sea of Reeds was, in fact, rooted in the natural order as the Divine pronouncement of “there shall be a rekeea” established the natural capacity for waters to divide.]

The Lubliner Kohen goes on to explain the reason that the tearing of the Sea of Reeds became a Talmudic metaphor for kivyachol a “hard” or “tough” Divine piece of work.  It is because that which is wrought with Gevurah requires power and might and is not soft, warm and fuzzy.  Yet when, the Bnei Yisrael sang the “Song of the Sea” they praised HaShem [the Divine name of Mercy] as having two right hands. This is a case history of the virtuous transforming the arid,dehydrated left of Gevurah into right.

The medium of capital punishment for the sotah is water. Why water?  Because if guilty, she too abused the power of water; source for all Chessed and it’s dark underbelly, taavah, to pursue forbidden pleasure with her paramour.

Of the three patriarchs, the one identified with Gevurah and, consequently, with the tearing of the Sea of Reeds, is Yitzchok.  Like his Rebbe, the Izhbitzer before him, the Lubliner Kohen interprets the pasuk  “And he (Yitzchok) dwelled in the Land of the Negev”(Bereshis 24:62) to mean that through Gevurah, antithetical to Chessed, Yitzchok had dehydrated himself of all taavah and bequeathed this spiritual capacity for ascetic kedushah to the Bnei Yisrael, especially at the tearing of the Sea of Reeds. Yitzchok is described in the gemara (Shabbos 89B) as displaying G-d to the  Bnei Yisrael  to see with their own eyes. Sure enough, Chazal teach us that at the tearing of the Sea of Reeds the lowest starta of the Bnei Yisrael saw HaShem with a prophetic clarity unmatched even by the navee– prophet; Yechezkal in his “work of the Chariot” such that they could point with their fingers and declare “This is my G-d and I will exalt Him.”

When kohanim confer Birkas Kohanim-the Priestly Blessing; they manipulate their hands in a way that A.  two adjacent fingers “fuse” as if they were one broader finger and B. as if an ox could bring the horns from either side of his head to converge and then to protrude out of the center of his forehead to approximate a unicorn bovine, the kohanim bring their two arms together as if they were reducing two hands into a single hand with bulkier fingers.

Rav Leibeleh Eiger explains that Birkas Kohanim  is intended to transform the two hands into one “right” hand, evoking a Divine Emanation of pure, unadulterated Mercy with no admixture of Rigor and Retributive Justice . He bases this on a passage in the Zohar that points out that in the Hebrew original of the pasuk describing the first priestly blessing ever: “And Ahron lifted his hand(s) up toward the people, and blessed them” (Vayikra 9:22) the word is spelled yado not yadav and would translate as the singular “hand”  rather than as the plural “hands”.

Toras Emes Naso D”H Hinei Ikar
Kunteris Kedushas Shabbos 7 D”H v’Chol Ahmahl page 49
Mei HaShiloach I Chayei Sara D”H v’Yitzchok

Originally posted May 2014.

Rabbi Wolbe – Each Person Must Know He’s Important – Bamidbar/Shavuos

“Take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel (1:2).”

The process of counting Bnei Yisrael described in this parashah differs drastically from the election tallies or censuses that take place in our time. In the electoral process it makes no difference whether a professor or an illiterate placed the ballot, because the purpose of the voting is not to place a spotlight on the individual; the aim is simply to identify which party has accumulated the greatest sum total of votes. Similarly, the purpose of a census is to determine the total count of people in any specific area. The counting of Bnei Yisrael, on the other hand, was carried out as a manifestation of Hashem’s Hashgachah Pratis and love for each Jew. Rashi tells us, “Because of His affection for them, He counts them at all times” (1:1).

The Torah instructed Moshe, Aharon, and all the leaders of the tribes to be present during the process of the counting. Since this census was performed by counting each individual’s half-shekel donation, would it not have sufficed for a collector to go around and collect the money? Why did the leaders of the nation have to give of their precious time to be involved in this process?

This census was meant to be an uplifting experience: “Se’u es rosh Bnei Yisrael” — lift up the heads of Bnei Yisrael (1:2). The only way the counting could be performed was if the greatest men of the generation would take interest in the individual.

Ramban explains that there was even a more compelling reason that necessitated the presence of Moshe and Aharon. “Additionally, he who comes and introduces himself before the foremost prophet and his brother, the holy one of Hashem, has gained merit and life … It is a merit to be counted by Moshe and Aharon because they will look at them favorably and pray that Hashem have compassion on them …” When each person came to give his half-shekel, Moshe would ask him his name and then bless him that he succeed in his endeavors.

The Gra said that during the era of prophecy there was no need for anyone to try to determine his own unique purpose in life. He would simply ask the prophet, and the prophet would tell him what he was supposed to do and how to go about doing it. A person who came before Moshe, the greatest of all prophets, would merit an even more inspiring encounter. Moshe would penetrate into the deepest recesses of each person’s soul in order to give him an appropriate blessing for success. Afterward, Aharon and the leader of his shevet would also bless him individually. Such a process uplifts a person significantly.

It is crucial that every person know that he is important: “Each and every person must say, The world was created for me” (Sanhedrin 37a). Every person has a unique combination of strengths and circumstances that distinguish him from anyone else who has lived or will ever live. He was born to specific parents, lives in a particular era and place, and was given certain talents because he has an avodah that he, and only he, can accomplish. The entire creation is waiting for him to achieve what is incumbent upon him.

If a person is not conscious of his own importance, he cannot begin his avodah in Torah. As an introduction to Kabbalas HaTorah, Hashem told Bnei Yisrael, “And you will be for Me a kingdom of priests (i.e., dignitaries)” (Shemos 19:6; see Rashi). Every Jew is a dignitary with responsibilities and an elevated status, no different from a dignitary in a government. It was with these feelings that Bnei Yisrael prepared themselves to receive the Torah, and it would be beneficial for us to try to emulate these feelings as well.

(Shiurei Chumash, Parashas Bamidbar 1:1; Alei Shur, Vol. I, p. 168)
From Rav Wolbe on Chumash (page 255).

Mourning’s End – Understanding Sefira and Lag B’Omer


The Torah’s Honor

The untimely demise of a Torah giant impacts every Jew, leaving a deep feeling of loss. If two Torah leaders died on one day (G-d forbid), the tragedy would be immense. We cannot even fathom how we would feel if the number was ten, fifty, or a hundred. In this light, we can begin to grasp the devastation of 24,000 Torah scholars dying between Pesach and Shavous, all students of Rabbi Akiva.

Our Sages reveal that they all died for the same reason: they did not honor each other properly ( Yevamos 62b). Their failure to honor their colleagues prevented them from appreciating words of Torah said by others. As a result their understanding of Torah was confined to their own insight, an extremely limited perception. Lacking total comprehension, they were not worthy to pass the Torah on to the next generation.

This flaw was rooted so deep in their conduct that they were not aware of it. Even Rabbi Akiva did not perceive it and never reproached them for it. If so, why were they punished so severely? The period between Pesach and Shavous is a time when a Jew is meant to prepare himself to receive the Torah. They should have used this opportunity to look within themselves and recognize their shortcomings. Instead, their souls were returned to their Creator.

Because of this tragedy, the Jewish people observe a period of national mourning between Pesach and Shavous. During this time we refrain from getting married, taking haircuts and shaving ( Shulchan Aruch 493:1-2). In addition, the accepted custom is not to listen to music ( Igros Moshe 1,166 and other poskim ) or to dance, even at a seudas mitzva ( Mishna Berura 493,3).

Days of Mourning
Although the students of Rabbi Akiva died between Pesach and Shavous, all agree that there were not deaths on every single day of this period. Some Rishonim cite a Midrash which says that the students died continuously from Pesach until “ Prus, ” half a month before Shavous (Abudraham , Razah and others.) According to this calculation, mourning should be observed as long as the deaths continued, i.e. until the 19th of Iyar, the 34th day of the Omer . This is the conclusion of the Shulchan Aruch (493,2) and the accepted practice among Sephardim.
Other poskim cite a comment by Tosfos saying that they continued to die until right before Shavous (Maharil). However they did not die on the sixteen days that Tachanun is not said (i.e. seven days of Pesach, six days of Shabbos, and three days of Rosh Chodesh ) leaving a total of thirty-three days. Those who accept this version do not mourn on the exact days that the students died, but rather during a corresponding thirty-three day period established by our Sages.

The Rema follows this view and it is the accepted practice among Ashkenazim (Rema 493:2-3 citing Maharil see Bach ). Some have the custom to observe this period from the second day of Pesach to Lag B’Omer, and others from the day after Rosh Chodesh of Iyar until Shavous.


Dancing at Two Weddings

What are the practical implications of these two different understandings? According to the Sephardi custom , one may not celebrate a wedding until the thirty-fourth day of the Omer . According to the Ashkenazi custom, a wedding may be held until the second of Iyar, or from Lag B’Omer onwards (depending on the custom of the parties involved).

However in certain areas there is a halachic concept of miktzas hayom c’kulo (part of a day is like a full day). For this reason, although seven days of shiva are required, a mourner “gets up” from shiva on the morning of the last day. Therefore Ashkenazim may take a haircut after sunrise of the thirty-third day of mourning, and Sephardim after sunrise of the thirty-fourth day.

May one officiate or participate at a wedding which falls during the period of mourning one observes? An Ashkenazi who knows he will attend a wedding during the Omer ahead of time should follow the custom which places the date of the wedding outside of his mourning period if possible. However at times this is not possible, e.g. he has two weddings, each in a different period.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that since attending a wedding is a fulfillment of the mitzva of rejoicing with a bride and groom, and the couple are allowed to get married at times permitted according to their custom, it is permissible to attend a simcha during one’s Sefira mourning period (Responsa Igros Moshe, 1,159; 2,95).

The Rema rules that since a bris mila is considered to be a personal Yom Tov for the father of the child, he may have a haircut the day before. The haircut should take place close to nightfall unless the bris is on Shabbos, in which case he may do it at any time on Friday. The same halacha applies to the Sandek and the Mohel , for the bris is also considered to be a Yom Tov for them ( Mishna Berura 493,12).

If one needs to take a haircut for health reasons one may be lenient and do so during Sefira ( Aruch HaShulchan 493,2). If one will sustain a financial loss (e.g., you may lose your job) it is permitted to shave or get a haircut (Responsa Igros Moshe , Orach Chaim 4,102). Similarly if one is learning to play a musical instrument for financial reasons, he may practice during Sefira ( ibid . 3,87).

Lag B’Omer
A number of poskim maintain that according to the Rema, a wedding may be celebrated on the night of Lag B’Omer ( Chok Yaakov , Elya Rabba , Graz , Mor Ukatzia Igros Moshe ibid . and others). Since Lag B’Omer is a Yom Tov in its own right, one should not mourn on that day. A proof for this is that Tachanun is not said during Mincha on Lag B’Omer or the day before ( Mishna Berura 493,9). If one has a good reason to hold a wedding on the night of Lag B’Omer, one should consult with a rabbi.

The commentators are unclear on the exact nature of Lag B’Omer ( Pri Megadim ). There are a number of reasons offered for the festival, all of which share a common theme – the strengthening and beautification of Torah for the Jewish nation. In this light, Lag B’Omer fits well into the period between Pesach and Shavous, which is a time of preparation to receive the Torah. At the same time, this period serves as a rectification for the transgressions that brought about the original decree against Rabbi Akiva’s students.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai
It is commonly believed that Lag B’Omer has significance because it is the anniversary of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s death, as well as the day that he and his son left the cave after years of hiding from the Romans ( Kaf HaChaim 493,27; Aruch HaShulchan 493,7; Chaye Adam 131,11 and others). On the day of his death Rabbi Shimon revealed the mystical insights of the Zohar and he did not die until he had completed this revelation ( Bnei Yissaschar, Iyar 3,3). To commemorate this momentous transmission, Rabbi Shimon stipulated that Lag B’Omer should be a day of simcha and promised tremendous reward to those who would rejoice on this day at his graveside . As a result many have the custom to ascend to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Eliezer in Meron to celebrate Lag B’Omer.

The Ari relates an incredible story which sheds light on the magnitude of this day. A great tzadik named Rabbi Avraham HaLevi had the custom to add the prayer of nachem (consolation for mourning) to Shemonah Esreh during the Omer . One year he went to Meron for Lag B’Omer and said nachem usual. The image of Rabbi Shimon appeared to him and told him that he had desecrated this holy day with his prayer, and as a result he would need consolation in the near future. Within a month one of Rabbi Avraham’s children died ( Magen Avraham 493,3 ; Kaf HaChaim 493,26.)

Lag B’Omer is an auspicious time to pray to be blessed with children and it is a well-known segula to pray for this purpose at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon on the day. Some people also distribute eighteen rotel (a fluid measure) of wine or grape juice, another act considered auspicious.

The sanctity of the day has the power to restore life as well. More than a hundred years ago a woman ascended to Meron on Lag B’Omer to give her son his first haircut on his third birthday. In the midst of the celebration the boy suddenly fell deathly ill and shortly afterwards everyone thought that he had passed away. His mother cried to Hashem that she had brought her son to rejoice on Lag B’Omer and instead tragedy had befallen her. Shortly afterwards, she heard the boy crying and he soon recovered ( Ta’amei HaMinhagim p. 263).

Other poskim also associate Lag B’Omer with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in a different way. After the death of his 24,000 students, Rabbi Akiva acquired five new disciples, one of them was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. On Lag B’Omer he gave them semicha , declaring them to be rabbis, thereby assuring that the transmission of the Torah would not be halted by the death of his previous students but would continue with his five new disciples ( Chida, Tov Ayin 18.)

The Miracle of Manna
The Chasam Sofer has a different approach to the nature of Lag B’Omer ( Responsa, Yoreh Deah 233). He proves that when the Jewish people left Egypt they first received the Divine sustenance of the manna on Lag B’Omer. Just as the miracles of Chanukah and Purim are commemorated with national festivals, so too we remember the manna on Lag B’Omer.

One should keep in mind that the manna was not just a source of food for the Jews in the desert. It provided spiritual sustenance that elevated the Jewish people, enabling them to later learn Torah ( Meam Loez, Shemos 16,12). In this respect it has a direct connection to the receiving of Torah and it is appropriate to commemorate this event before Shavous.

The Talmud ( Yavamos 62b) tells us that the students of Rabbi Akiva were punished because they did not show honor for one another. This statement implies that they felt respect for each other but they did not outwardly show it.

In these troubled times it is incumbent upon the Jewish people to look for ways to find favor in Hashem’s Eyes, especially in this matter where we have transgressed in the past.

Demonstrating respect for all of our fellow Jews is no trivial matter. It is an essential prerequisite to receiving the Torah.

Rabbi Travis is the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Toras Chaim.

Originally published here on 5/4/2007

Beyond College Campuses – Judaism in Cherry Hill is Alive

I had the pleasure of meeting Rabbi Yisroel Tzvi Serebrowski, director of Torah Links Center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey at the Torah U Mesorah convention last week. He has clearly demonstrated that beyond College Campuses, interest in Judaism in Cherry Hill and other communities is alive and growing.

Here is an excerpt from the Jewish Action 2013 about Rabbi Serebroski’s community: (Note: that the community has grown more since this article.)

In 2000, as part of the outreach efforts of Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG) of Lakewood, Rabbi Yisroel Tzvi Serebrowski began teaching in the community of Cherry Hill. He organized classes in people’s homes and at the local Jewish community center and public libraries—basically any place that would open its doors—and offered compelling presentations such as “If You Hated Sunday School, Then This One’s for You.” He invited prominent guest lecturers and held Shabbatons in various homes. People came. “The best ambassador is a satisfied customer,” says Rabbi Serebrowski. “One host would lead to another.”

As his following grew, so did the demand for his becoming a full-time community rabbi. “I was content living in Lakewood and traveling to Cherry Hill three or four times a week,” says Rabbi Serebrowski, who was part of a commuter kollel established by BMG. “I never thought we would have a shul or that I would wind up moving to Cherry Hill.” Since the 1970s, BMG has been sending young rabbinical students to establish kollels, with the goal of strengthening Jewish communities across the country. In the late 1990s, BMG began establishing “commuter kollels” in areas commutable from Lakewood.

This arrangement worked well for Rabbi Serebrowski, until one of his students—who lived five miles away from Rabbi Mangel’s established shul—made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. “He told me, ‘Rabbi, I’m all ready to keep Shabbos. If you start a minyan, I’ll never go back to work on Shabbos.’”

Rabbi Serebrowski consulted with his mentor, Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon, BMG’s mashgiach, and Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, founder and rosh yeshivah of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia. They both said, “You have no choice. You must move.”

He did. Rabbi Serebrowski looked for a house in a centrally located area in Cherry Hill. He started a minyan in his basement, initially recruiting friends from Lakewood to ensure he would have ten men. People said, “Host a minyan Friday night only, or just Shabbos morning; don’t overdo it.” But his determination won out. “If I’m moving because of Shabbos, there is going to be a Shabbos. And there’s going to be every minyan, every week.” Rabbi Serebrowski still recalls his excitement the first time twenty people from the community showed up at the minyan. Then twenty people began showing up every Shabbat and he no longer had to make “minyan phone calls.” It had become a solid minyan. Today, on a typical Shabbat, the shul attracts between sixty-five and one hundred participants.

Susan Lipson, fifty, grew up Jewishly unaffiliated in Cherry Hill. Today she’s an integral part of the growing Orthodox community in her hometown, which—religiously speaking—barely resembles the town she knew as a child. “I feel absolutely part of the community. I’ve met so many people on so many different religious levels, and we all get along. We have this amazing shul and don’t have enough room for people; it’s a great problem to have.”

“We have everything here that anyone could possibly need—a self-contained community where people can grow at all levels.”

Genna Landa, forty-six, is a software developer and one of Rabbi Serebrowski’s “regulars” who faithfully showed up for davening and Torah classes from the outset. “Rabbi Serebrowski exudes warmth, and that’s what attracts people. He’s a scholar, a savvy businessman and a warm, caring mensch. [In terms of doing mitzvot,] he doesn’t say, ‘You should do this,’ but [rather] ‘this is what should be done.’”

In 2010, the community purchased a two-acre property, now referred to as the Torah Links Center, or TLC, which currently houses the shul, Hebrew school and adult learning and social programs. TLC’s Hebrew school has more than thirty students and is growing. In the past year, TLC’s programs have touched over 1,000 individuals with varying levels of religious observance.

Cherry Hill’s spiritual infrastructure grows more solid each year. In 2009, Rabbi Mangel opened a community mikvah, which services fifty-five women each month. The community is also in the process of constructing an eruv, which was due to be completed by December 2013. “I see it as a tremendous catalyst for frum families from outside the area to move in,” says Rabbi Serebrowski, who was also instrumental in getting the local ShopRite to open a “kosher experience” section.

“I want to create a situation that when a family becomes frum, they don’t have to leave for a more established Orthodox community,” says Rabbi Serebrowski. Rabbi Mangel concurs. “Our goal is to build Yiddishkeit. We’re bringing a love for Judaism where, no matter what their level, people are growing.”

Profiles in Courage – BTs and the Trait of G’vurah

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz zt”l

In their Yeshivas and Batei Ya’akov our FFB children benefit from the study and inspiration-by-osmosis of the classic Mussar literature. In the tables of contents of these works one will find a profusion of fine and noble middos = character traits. There’s alacrity, humility, love, mercy, magnanimity and fear of heaven, et al. on the menu. But there is one trait that is conspicuously absent. While it may not have been expunged from the actual literature the midah of G’vura(=might) and personal courage has been deemphasized in the culture and in the curricula. I have theories as to why this is so but that would be a subject for another post.

For now, suffice it to say we associate “being macho” with some of the more unseemly diffusions of the dominant culture that we broke with when we began our return to Torah and Mitzvahs and that we continue to strive mightily to avoid being influenced by. *2

Many of us operate under the conviction that courage and strength are somehow un-Jewish characteristics. Every stereotype contains a kernel of truth and the Woody Allenesque weak Jewish Nebbishes of the popular imagination were not spontaneously generated in a cultural vacuum. Sure, we are proud of the military prowess of the IDF and may even take some “guilty pleasure” in reading the Holocaust literature that deals with the exploits of the forest partisans and the insurgents of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Yet we view these as the exceptions that prove the rule of the historical Jewish personality makeup that is mild, non-violent, non-confrontational, deferential, and passive to a fault.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Our sages, OB”M, in Pirkei Avos teach us: “Who is mighty? He who vanquishes his evil inclination. As it is written: ‘And one who dominates his own spirit (is mightier) than the champion who captures a city.’” In other words, self control and vanquishing one’s Yetzer HaRah =inclination to evil is identical in kind but superior in degree to the strength, the personal courage, and the steely nerves of the victorious battlefield general. It requires more courage G’vurah- to vanquish the Yetzer HaRah than to finally conquer the besieged city.

It is peculiar that in contemporary Torah Observant Jewish culture the midah of G’vurah should have been so marginalized seeing as it is, as per the Shulchan Aruch, square one of Judaism:

“One should be misgaber*as a Lion in order to rise in the morning for the service of their Creator”

-Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 1:1

IMO BTs are uniquely positioned to raise the consciousness of Jewish Society at large to the indispensable centrality of the Midas haG’vurah and to infuse the cowardly “lions” with new strength. For while the trait of g’vurah is something that all Jews aspire to, it is a trait that the BT excels at and identifies with. Rishonim explain that the famous dictum of Chazal : “in the spiritual station where Ba’alei T’shuva stand even the Tzadikim who never sinned cannot stand” is predicated on the Ba’al T’shuva’s relative superiority in the middah of G’vurah. Having tasted the forbidden to the point that all sense of taboo has disappeared (don’t get offended… as per Chazal this happens after two repetitions!) the level of G’vurah required for the BT to resist future seduction of his/her Yetzer haRah is greater than the level required by the Tzadik to resist an equivalent temptation.

We all know people who possessed the inner strength, the awesome g’vurah, to turn their backs on lucrative careers, break off relationships with significant others, render some or much of their higher education irrelevant, and/or willingly begin to re-educate themselves at an advanced age at institutions where, despite being highly accomplished, they would have to begin anew literally from the ABCs. Many of us even see these people when we gaze at our reflections in the mirror.

Those FFB’s who had the benefit of a Torah enriched early childhood education can hardly fathom and never replicate the courage and strength of the BT. But they can certainly draw lessons in G’vurah… “Profiles in Courage” from them.

There is a most beautiful tradition rooted in the works of the classical Kabbalists to utilize the days of Sefiras HaOmer for Tikun haMiddos = the refinement of character traits in preparation for receiving the Torah on Shavuos. There is a veritable rainbow of goodness to behold when perusing the siddur’s listing of these middos: yet tonight the color most vivid in the middos rainbow is that of g’vurah = personal courage and strength.

Over the past half century the Kiruv revolution has empowered the mighty and encouraged the courageous. It behooves us to offer thanksgiving and praise to the Kel Gibor = the Almighty G-d, who taught us His Torah from “the mouth of His might” and who continues to manifest the divine attribute of g’vurah by stemming and reversing the hemorrhaging of our people in fulfillment of His promise “Ki lo yamush m’pi zarakha v’zerah zarakha mey’atah v’ad olam” = “And the Torah will not withdraw from the mouths of your children or their children now and forever.” But we mustn’t forget that imitation is the sincerest form of praise. As such we ought to search for ways and means to grow even stronger and more courageous ourselves and, leading by example, empower the weak and encourage the frightened. In a paradoxical duty of Oz-like chesed it’s “on us” to grant courage to HaShem’s cowardly lions.

__________________________________________________

* (reflexive conjugation of the word gavar- verb form of g’vurah and all the strength and fearlessness that it implies)

*2 When I speak of G’vurah I don’t mean Jewish street gangs or even JDL like neighborhood patrols. Nor is this limited to more Torah observant Jews enlisting in the IDF. I’m talking about an emphasis on g’vurah that will replace a “passing-of-the-buck”, dodging of responsibility with a buck-stops-here assuming of responsibility. G’vurah that leads to greater emotional and financial independence, a willingness to move away from the frummest population centers to places where Yiddishkeit will not be as convenient, or to make aliyah in spite of the daunting challenges. I’d love to see more nerve to confront social problems instead of the terror that denies them, communal courage and self-confidence that would ameliorate (to a degree, not a reckless one) the current fear-of-contamination informed snootiness and exclusivity that one finds at all too many Yeshivas. I’d love to see more of the individual self-confidence and courage that is required both for a lifetime of spiritual growth and for the serenity and mental-hygiene that comes from realizing it’s OK to be me (so long as it’s within Torah parameters)

Originally Published in May 2007

The Five Minute Seder

Some people want to have a very fast seder. This guide is for them.

A few years ago a friend asked if I could put together a five minute seder.
Pass it on to anyone for whom it might be helpful.
If you want a more detailed explanation, download The Beyond BT Guide to the Seder.

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1) Kaddesh – Sanctify the day with the recitation of Kiddush
*Leader says

On Shabbos add:
Vay’hi erev vay’hi voker yom hashi-shi. Vay’chulu hashamayim v’ha-aretz v’choltzva’am.
Vay’chal Elohim bayom hashvi’i, m’lachto asher asah, vayishbot bayom hashvi-i,
mikol-mlachto asher asah. Vay’vareich Elohim, et-yom hashvi’i, vay’kadeish oto,
ki vo shavat mikol-mlachto, asher-bara Elohim la-asot.

On all days continue
Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ha-Gofen.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher bachar banu mikol’am,
v’rom’manu mikol-lashon, v’kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, vatiten-lanu Adonai Eloheinu
b’ahavah (shabatot limnuchah u) moadim l’simchah, chagim uz’manim l’sason et-yom
(hashabat hazeh v’et-yom) chag hamatzot hazeh. Z’man cheiruteinu, (b’ahavah,)
mikra kodesh, zeicher litziat mitzrayim. Ki vanu vacharta v’otanu kidashta mikol
ha’amim. (v’shabat) umo’adei kod’shecha (b’ahavah uv’ratzon) b’simchah uv’sason
hinchaltanu. Baruch atah Adonai, m’kadeish (h’shabbat v’) Yisrael v’hazmanim.

Ba-ruch A-tah A-do-noi E-loi-hei-nu Me-lech ha-o-lam
she-he-chee-ya-nu v’ki-yi-ma-nu vi-hi-gi-ya-nu liz-man ha-zeh.

*Drink the 1st cup of wine. Lean to your left while drinking.

2) Urechatz, – *Wash your hands before eating Karpas.

3) Karpas – *Eat a vegetable dipped in salt water.
*Leader says Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ho-adomah –
*Everybody eats the vegetable. Lean to your left while eating.

4) Yachatz. -* Break the middle Matzah. Hide the larger half for Afikoman.

5) Maggid – *Tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt
Here is a summary of the story. (Alternatively go around the room reading in English from a translated Haggadah.)

The main mitzvah of the night is telling about the Exodus from Egypt.
*Pour the 2nd Cup of Wine
*Four Questions are asked

*The answer to the four questions is given.

According to one commentator, it’s broken up into 6 parts based on the verse in the Torah which describes the mitzvah of telling the story at the Seder:
“And you shall relate to your child on that day saying: it is because of this Hashem acted for me when I came forth out of Egypt.”

a)– And you shall relate to your child – four types of chidren/people with different belief levels are discussed.

b)– on that day – explains that we should tell the story on Passover night and not earlier in the month,

c)– saying – the actual story:
Our ancestors were idol worshippers;—– through Abraham;—– Egyptian Enslavement;—– We cry out;—– G-d hears our cries
G-d saves us with the 10 plagues;—– We express our thanks for G-d saving us
Dip your finger in the wine for the 10 plagues
1) Water, which turned to blood and killed all fish and other aquatic life
2) Frogs
3) Lice
4) Wild animals
5) Disease on livestock
6) Incurable boils
7) Hail and thunder
8) Locusts
9) Darkness
10) Death of the first-born of all Egyptian humans and animals. To be saved, the Israelites had to place the blood of a lamb on the front door of their houses.

d) — It is because of this — “Rabban Gamliel explains why we use the Passover offering, Matzah and Maror.
The Passover lamb, represented in our times by the roasted bone, recalls the blood on the doorposts and the terror and anticipation of the night of the plague of the first born.

Matzah is what we ate in the morning when Israel was rushed out of Egypt with no time to let their dough rise.

Maror captures the bitterness of the enslavement.

e) — Hashem acted for me…” – “In every generation, we should see ourselves as if we had gone out from Egypt.

f) – when I came forth out of Egypt.” –We recite 2 songs of praise to G-d similar to the songs recited when we left Egypt.

*Leader of Seder recites Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ha-Gofen.
*Drink the 2nd cup of wine. Lean to your left while drinking.

6) Rachtzah – *Wash the hands prior to eating Matzah and the meal.
*After washing and before drying say
*Say Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melcch Ho-olom Asher Kidshonu B’mitzvosov V’tzivonu Al N’tilas Yodoyim.

7) Motzi – *Recite the Hamotzi blessing over eating Matzah before a Meal
*Say Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Hamotzi Lechem Min Ho-oretz.

8) Matzah – *Recite the blessing over eating Matzah
*Say Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Asher Kidshonu B’mitzvosov Vtzivonu Al Achilas Matzah.

*Eat the Matzah. Lean to your left while eating.

9) Maror – *The Maror is dipped in Charoscs
*Say Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Asher Kidshonu B’mitzvosov Vtzivonu Al Achilas Maror.
*Eat the Maror.

10) Korech – *Eat a sandwich of Matzah and Maror.
*Eat the Sandwich.

11) Shulchan Orech – *Eat the festival meal

Find the Afikoman.

12) Tzafun – *Eat the Afikoman which had been hidden all during the Seder.
*Pour the 3rd cup of wine

13) Barech – Recite Birchas Hamazon, the blessings after the meal

*Leader of Seder recites blessing Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ha-Gofen.
*Drink the 3rd cup of wine. Lean to your left while drinking.

*Pour the 4th cup of wine;
*Pour the cup for Elijah

14) Hallel – Recite the praises of G-d
*Leader of Seder recites Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ha-Gofen.
*Drink the 4th cup of wine. Lean to your left while drinking.

15) Nirtzah – Pray that G-d accepts our praise and speedily sends the Messiah.
Sing the songs of the Haggadah

photo credit: dcJohn via photopin cc

Pesach and the Three Components of Emunah

One of the hardest aspects of Judaism is to turn our intellectual knowledge into heartfelt knowledge and then to have our actions reflect that knowledge. Rav Yisroel Salant addressed this issue with heart-focused Mussar learning, while the Baal Shem Tov addressed it with Chassidus (and today Neo-Chassidus). The teachings of Rav Itamar Schwartz (http://www.bilvavi.net/english) are focused on transferring intellectual knowledge of G-d from our heads, into our hearts, and into our actions.

Belief in G-d and His Torah must begin with the knowledge that G-d created the world, took us out from Mitzrayim, and gave us the Torah. The mitzvah of “Telling of the Exodus Story” along with our twice daily mitzvah to “Remember that G-d took Us Out of Egypt” form the foundation of that intellectual knowledge.

However, the telling of the story on Pesach requires a deeper, more ingrained, heartfelt knowledge. In fact, there is a mitzvah to “See ourselves as if we actually left Mitzrayim”. The commentators discuss that this is a difficult mitzvah because we know that we personally did not leave Mitzrayim. We need to use visualization and the Torah provides the Pesach Offering, Matzah and Maror to assist us in this task. In addition, we can consider that we left Mitzrayim, by viewing the Exodus as an ongoing process which will be completed with the future redemption from our current exile. Lastly, Pesach is a night of Hodaah, a night of Hallel, Dayenu, and endless praise of G-d. Gratitude is one of the most powerful tools to develop a connection and love of G-d for all He does and all He has done for us.

Emunah of the mind is accessible, while Emunah of the heart doesn’t need recall – it’s always there. Emunah of the heart is developed by thinking often about G-d during time bound mitzvos like the Shema, constant mitzvos like the Six Constant Mitzvos, and opportunal mitzvos like Chesed Opportunities. The goal is to always feel G-d’s presence. It’s a lifelong process, but the Pesach Seder is the number one yearly opportunity to develop Emunah of the heart.

The third component is Emunah in our Actions. Not only do we need to know and feel G-d’s presence, but we need to act on those thoughts and feelings. Emunah in our actions focuses on acting faithfully to G-d in all we do and by performing His Mitzvos properly, with thought and feeling. According to the Vilna Gaon, the Pesach Seder provides 64 mitzvos in which we can act faithfully to G-d. It is a great opportunity to perform our mitzvos at our highest level of capability.

We can all improve our service of G-d. Pesach is the opportunity to supercharge our spiritual growth with Emunah of the Mind, Emunah of the Heart, and Emunah of our Actions.

64 Mitzvos According to the Gra from R’ Silverstein
in the name of R’ Elchanan Wasserman

1-Kiddush;
2-Kiddush on Wine;
3-Borei Pri HaGafen;
4-Kiddush HaYom;
5-Mentioning Yitzias Mitzrayim in Kiddush;
6-Bracha of Shechayanu;
7-Drinking First Cup;
8-Leaning for the First Cup;
9-Washing hands for Karpas;
10-Bracha of Netilas Yadayim (we don’t pasken like this);
11-Borei Pri Hoadama;
12-Eating Karpas;
13-Dipping it in Salt Water;
14-Bracha achrona (we don’t pasken like this);
15-Shankbone for Korban Pesach;
16-Egg for Korban Chagigah;
17-Yachatz to show Backbreaking Work;
18-Mah Nishtana;
19-Saying over the Story;
20-Starting with the Bad and Ending with praise;
21-Saying the Haggadah Over Matzah;
22-R’ Gamliel’s 3 things;
23-Seeing Ourselves as Leaving Egypt;
24-Thanking Hashem for Taking us Out;
25-Bracha of Asher Gealanu;
26-Bracha on Second Cup;
27-Drinking Second Cup;
28-Leaning for Second Cup;
29-Washing Hands for Matzah;
30-Bracha for Washing Hands;
31-Bracha of HaMotzie;
32-Bracha of Achilas Matzah;
33-Lechem Mishna;
34-Eating First Kezayis of Matzah;
35-Eating Second Kezayis of Matzah;
36-Leaning while Eating Matzah;
37-Eating the Meal;
38-Bracha on Maror;
39-Eating Maror;
40-Charoses for Zecher Mitzrayim
41-Dipping Maror in Charoses;
42-Korech;
43-Leaning for Korech;
44-Eating First Kezayis of Afikoman;
45-Eating Second Kezayis of Afikoman;
46-Leaning for Afikoman;
47-Mayim Achronim;
48-Kos for Bentching;
49-Mezuman for Bentching;
50-First Bracha of Birchas Hamazon;
51-Second Bracha of Birchas Hamazon;
52-Third Bracha of Birchas Hamazon;
53-Fourth Bracha Birchas Hamazon;
54-Bracha on Third Cup;
55-Drinking Third Cup;
56-Leaning for Third Cup;
57-Hallel;
58-Zimun by Hallel;
59-Bracha after Hallel;
60-Bracha on Fourth Cup;
61-Drinking Fourth Cup;
62-Leaning for Fourth Cup;
63-Al HaGefen after Fourth Cup;
64-Simcha on the Seder night;

Get Ready for Pesach with These Great MP3s and PDFs

Here is the Beyond BT Guide to the Seder which goes through the basic halachos of each step of the seder.

Rabbi Welcher’s Preparing Your Home for Pesach a listen.

Cleaning for Pesach; from Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg – z”tl

Rav Itamar Schwartz the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh with a number of Drashos on Pesach

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The Haggadah relates that:
In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Mitzrayim, as it is says: “You shall tell your child on that day, it is because of this that The Haggadah relates that:

In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Mitzrayim, as it is says: “You shall tell your child on that day, it is because of this that Hashem did for me when I left Mitzrayim.”

In this mp3, Rabbi Moshe Gordon explores some of the classical approaches to understanding and fulfilling this Mitzvah.

Download Rabbi Moshe Gordon on Leaving Mitzrayim.

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And here is an amazing series of Shiurim by Rabbi Gordon on the Seder and the Haggadah which covers the major Rishonim, Achronim and Poskim on the mitzvos of Pesach night and the Hagaddah.

Seder
Kadesh and Arba Kosos
Urchatz Karpas Yachatz
Hallel Rachtza Matza Heseiba
Maror Korech Shulchan Orech
Afikomen Barech End of Hallel Nirtza after Seder

Haggadagh
Intro to Sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim
HaLachma Anya Akiras HaShulchan Intro to Ma Nishtana
Ma Nishtana
Avadim Hayeinu Arami Oved Avi
Arami Oved Avi 2
Makos End of Magid

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YU Torah on Pesach

Torah Anytime on Pesach

Rabbi Uziel Milevsky zt”l on Pesach

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TEN WAYS to help you and YOUR CHILDREN have a more Meaningful and Inspiring PESACH SEDER

Use these suggestions to infuse new meaning and excitement into your seder and create a lasting experience for you and your family.

1.Make the most of your Seder and best fulfill the mitzvah of V’higadita L’vincha by staying focused on telling the actual story of Yetzias Mitzrayim; concentrate on the events and their lessons.

2. Transform Yetzias Mitzrayim from a story into a reality by celebrating the Seder like you celebrate a Simcha in your own family. Speak about it vividly, personally and enthusiastically…you’ll inspire yourself and your children.

3. Prepare for the Seder! Spend time studying books and Midrashim that elaborate specifically on the details of each miracle to help your children appreciate the extent of Hashem’s kindness.

4. Make Pesach personal and relevant to your children. Use your discussion about the amazing miracles of Yetzias Mitzrayim as a means of opening their eyes to the miracles Hashem performs for us every day.

5. Show your children how so much of the Pesach Seder revolves around them, demonstrating how much Hashem cares about every child and values each one as an essential member of Klal Yisroel.

6. Involve your children in the Pesach Seder. Prepare stimulating and challenging questions that will guide them to understand the lessons of the Haggadah and be an active participant in the Seder.

7. Practice the lesson of the Four Sons during your Seder by making a particular effort to involve each child (and adult!) in a way that best suits his or her unique personality, style and level.

8. Take the time to patiently answer your children’s questions. If you don’t know the answer, create a powerful Chinuch experience by asking a rabbi and exploring the issue… together with your child.

9. Reinforce their Emunah through the Pesach Seder by explaining that the miracles of Yetzias Mitzrayim irrefutably demonstrated Hashem’s complete control over the world to millions of eyewitnesses. We attest to this truth every year on the Seder night.

10. Inspire yourself by remembering that tonight Jewish parents around the world are passing on a glorious 3,320 year old legacy to their children as their parents and ancestors have done before them. Realize that the Seder that you create for your children will inspire them for the rest of their lives and shape the future Seder that they will make for their children.

The Pesach Seder:
A Unique Opportunity to Instill Emunah in Our Children

The Mitvah of telling the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim is primarily focused on our children and family. Its main purpose is to instill in their hearts the full knowledge of Hashem’s sovereignty and the magnitude of His strength and miracles. One should explain the story to them in the language that they understand to make them aware of the extent of the wonders that Hashem performs. It is not sufficient to explain just the main points of Yetzias Mitzrayim written in the Haggadah. Instead, we should describe all of the miracles vividly as they are depicted in the Gemara, Midrashim and other Seforim. (Based on Yesod V’Shoresh Ha’avoda 9:6)

COURTESY OF THE COMMUNITY TRAINING INITIATIVE OF PRIORITY-1
Under the auspices of Harav Reuven Feinstein, Shlita

Purim: The Joys of Simcha and Sasson

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh.

Download a number of Drashos on Purim

Purim: The Joys of Simcha and Sasson

The days of Purim are called days of mishteh (festivity) and simcha (happiness). What is a mishteh, and what is a simcha?

The Gemara (Sukkah 56b) says that Sasson and Simcha (two kinds of happiness) had an argument about who comes first. Simcha said that it came before Sasson, because it is written, “To the Jews there was orah, simcha and sasson”; by Purim, the possuk writes “simcha” before “sasson.”

Sasson is associated with water. On the Simchas Beis HaShoeivah, they would celebrate the nisuch hamayim, the one time of the year in which they would pour water on the Mizbeiach. About this there is a possuk, “And they draw water with sasson.”

Simcha is associated with wine – “And wine gladdens the heart of man.”

What was created first – water or wine? We know that water was created first. This shows us that normally, sasson comes before simcha. But on Purim, simcha came before sasson.

What is simcha, and what is sasson?

Intrinsic Happiness Before The Increase Of Happiness

This has to do with the difference between mishteh and simcha. There is a simcha which comes before a mishteh, and there is a simcha which comes after a mishteh.

Sasson is a joy upon completion. Sasson comes from the word sheish, “six.” When the world was finished being created on the sixth day, there was a joy in creation – a sasson. When creation became complete, there was a happiness just with the very existence of creation.

Simcha is a happiness that comes after that. When one has joy from existence, he has sasson. When one adds onto that happiness, he has simcha. Simcha is when we add onto our intrinsic happiness – when we increase our already existing happiness.

Simcha adds onto Sasson. The entire idea of Simcha is to add onto the happiness of our existence, which is Sasson. Thus, there has to first be Sasson in order to have Simcha.

In order for a person to increase his happiness, he first needs to be happy with the fact that he exists. On top of your intrinsic happiness you are able to add onto that more happiness, but there has to be first be a happiness in yourself in order for you to increase it.

If a person attempts to have simcha by trying to increase his happiness, but he isn’t yet happy with the fact that he exists, then he will not be able to have simcha. You can only add onto your happiness if there is a happiness already there to begin with! This is why sasson must come before simcha. First you have to be happy with the mere fact that you exist, and then you can increase your happiness.

When people just try to increase their happiness but they’re not happy with themselves to begin with, it is a foolish and superficial kind of happiness.

Purim – Above Your Existence

But on Purim, it is the other way around: simcha comes before sasson. On Purim, simcha is mentioned in the possuk before it mentions sasson; this shows us that on Purim we need to have something that comes even before sasson. On Purim, we need to find a simcha which comes even before sasson.

If sasson is the happiness of one’s very existence, what can come before this? What comes before your existence?

We know that there are certain creations which were created even before Hashem created the universe. One of them was the Torah. On Purim, when the Jewish people accepted the Torah again anew, it was really an acceptance of the Torah of before creation. This is an example of something that came before existence.

What is this power that is “before” your existence? How can anything else come before something exists?

One way we see this is in the future happiness, which is “The righteous rejoice in Hashem”. The happiness in Hashem alone is a kind of happiness that is before I exist; such a happiness existed before I exist, and this will be again revealed in the future.

There is another way to arrive at the simcha which comes before sasson. Purim is about totally nullifying one’s Daas – we can see this from the halachah that a person has to get drunk on Purim until he has no more Daas.

This is how one experiences a happiness that is above his existence – when one nullifies his very self to the Creator.

Finding Joy in the Practice of Judaism

Rabbi Noson Weisz explains the spiritual input that God offers on Purim:

There is much more to Judaism than the outer trappings of observance. Observance is the body of Judaism, but its soul requires the Jews to place their relationship with God at the very center of life. The observance of the commandments is only meaningful when it is the outer manifestation of this inner reality. One cannot be truly Jewish without dreaming of the Temple and of Jerusalem. Jews who manage to find a good life in the absence of this dream are on their way to annihilation as a distinct people no matter what their level of observance may be.

There is a famous saying in Yiddish, S’is shver zu zein a Yid! “It’s hard to be a Jew.” Israel has lost far many more Jews through its history to this statement than to the persuasive power of foreign ideologies.

The spiritual input of the Purim holiday is provided to counter this tendency. In essence, it comes to counter the protest of coercion. We see the Torah as coercion as long as we feel that strict observance is impractical and burdensome in the context of the realities within which we are forced to live. But Jews in exile must be able to find joy in the practice of Judaism to be able to maintain their commitment to Judaism as the focus of their existence. They must still feel that despite all the hardships of exile, their commitment to the Torah is the force that gives them life.

When they were faced with Haman’s edict, the Jewish people found the strength to reach deep into their collective soul. Israel realized that the physical annihilation which threatened them was an indication of the spiritual level to which they had sunk. They were threatened with outward physical annihilation only because they were close to dying as a people spiritually on the inside. They reexamined their attitude to their own commitment to Judaism, located the protest of coercion in their collective Jewish soul, and gave it up for good. As a result, the physical edict was rescinded and the Jews were blessed with “light, happiness, joy and honor.”

The joy that comes from Torah observance under seemingly unfavorable circumstances is the spiritual input that God offers on Purim. May we all merit receiving a powerful dose of it.

Read the whole thing here

You Used to be So Much Fun – Relating to Non-Religious Family and Friends

Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg, Menahel, Yeshiva Ohr Eliyahu (LA) gave a 3 part series titled “You Used to be So Much Fun – Relating to Non-Religious Family and Friends”, at the Life After Teshuva conference in Passaic in 2001. More than 230 people attended the conference in Passaic, New Jersey, which was intended to provide ba’alei teshuvah families with lifecycle support — assistance in raising families, adolescent children, etc.

Click on the link to listen to Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. (To download either audio file to your computer, click with the right mouse button on the link and select Save Target As).

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Here are some of the main points from part 1:

In his introduction, Rabbi Goldberg tells us that he’s not discussing halachic issues. And he is not going to talk about how to change our friends and relatives.

We have to look at what can we do to improve these relationships. What have we done to be part of the problem? We can’t talk our way out of problems that we might have behaved our way into.

Every organization is perfectly aligned to get the results that it is currently achieving. In other words if we keep doing what we’re doing, we will keep getting what we’re getting. If we want to get different results we have to do something different. We have to focus on what we can do, because that is the only thing in our control.

Rav Noach Orlowek said in the name of Rav Simcha Wasserman upon being the asked “What can I do to get my parents to understand me?”. Rav Wasserman replied “To get your parents to understand you, you have to try to understand them. As Shlomo Hamelech says “Just like when you see your reflection in a pool of a water, so to the heart of one person to another”.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l said Shlomo HaMelech uses a pond instead of a mirror, because to see your reflection in a pond, you have to take the action of leaning over. So too here, we have Torah, so we need to make the right moves. Don’t allow Torah to split a family apart.

How do we understand parents? In the second blessing of Shema in the morning we say “Place into our hearts, to understand, to know, to hear, to learn and to teach”. If we don’t understand and know, then we haven’t heard. First we have to know and understand – where are our parents coming from. After we know and understand, then we can hear. And when we reach the point of hearing then we can learn. After we have understood and known and heard and learned – only then when can teach.

The source of so many problems is that we became religious and we went right away into the teach mode. So to build a relationship, we must first listen and understand our parents.

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Here is a summary of Part 2, but please take the time to listen to the audio file.

Rabbi Goldberg points out that we can’t hold non observant family members responsible for their sometimes adverse reaction to our Yiddishkeit because we are the ones who went “crazy”. Our parents raised us in a”normal” way and we did the “abnormal” thing. In addition, they raised us to be independent and it is difficult for them when we choose a path so different from theirs. A lot of what we do is a denial of the values that they tried to impart. And that is a hard thing to have thrown in your face on a daily basis. We are sending a constant subtle message that we are rejecting what they have done. From our parents’ point of view, we are kids at risk. We have to do all that we can to improve the situation.

People want to hear about things that will benefit them. If we want to build an understanding relationship the first thing is to show that they benefit because we are now religious. Show them what’s in it for them. Parents and friends see all the things that we can’t do – No more Saturday’s, no more restaurants,etc.. We have to show them that their life is better as a result of our Yiddishkeit. That means a focus on mitzvos between man and his fellow man. Leave religion out of most conversations. Rabbi Goldberg feels it is not our responsibility to Mekariv our parents. What we have to do is avoid creating a Chillul Hashem. Don’t drive them away.

There are a lot of things we can’t do, so we have to create a situation where we say yes as much as possible. A relationship is like a bank account and you have to make a lot of deposits, so when you make the withdrawals you are not overdrawn. Look for opportunities to make deposits. We often need a Rav to know when we can say yes. Rabbi Goldberg states there are surprising heterim, but you need a Rav. If your parents and relatives see that you do say yes whenever you can, then they will know that when you say no, it is because you have no other choice.

Family members sometimes feel that we get some holier than thou pleasure out of saying no. They need to know that we don’t enjoy having to say no to them, we wish we could say yes. Look to take every legimitate leniency, but consult a Rav to determine details. We have to know when to make an issue out of things and when we should let them go.

Why Do We Say Brochos Quickly?

A friend recently asked “Why do we often say Brochos quickly?”. The Mesillas Yesharim helps to explain why, and provides a practical path to the remedy.

In the introduction, the Ramchal points out that serving Hashem is not a natural and automatic process, like eating and sleeping. Therefore, we have to first learn what it means to serve Hashem. Then we need to make a serious concerted effort to improve and reach adequate levels of service, since this is the reason why we were created.

The basis of our service of Hashem, is Deutoronomy 10:12 in Parshas Eikev: “And now, Israel, what does Hashem, your God, ask of you? Only…
– to fear (be in awe of) Hashem, your God,
– to go in His ways,
– to love Him,
– to serve Hashem, your God, with all your heart and all your soul,
– to observe the commandments of Hashem and His decrees, which I command you today, for your benefit. “

The Ramchal writes about each of these components, beginning with the loftiest, summarized as follows:
1) fear (awe) of Hashem – like we would fear (be in awe of) a great and awesome king;
2) walking in His ways – refining character traits and reducing self-centeredness, leading to improved relationships;
3) love – in our heart, and being inspired to please Him, like we would want to please our parents;
4) wholeheartedness – doing mitzvos with a focus on serving and connecting to Hashem, with devotion, not by rote; and
5) observance of all the mitzvos – with all their fine points and conditions.

The reason why we say Brochos quickly is that we are focused on the what of the mitzvah, which is just saying it. However, to serve Hashem properly, we need to also focus on the why – consciously connecting to Hashem through the mitzvos, and the how — doing the mitzvos wholeheartedly, with love, without self-centeredness, and with fear.

Improving our service is a process.
A good place to begin this process is by saying our Brochas each day with a little more focus.
This is what we can focus on when we say a Brocha:
“Baruch” makes us aware that Hashem is the source of all blessing.
“Atah” focuses us on the fact that we’re talking directly to Hashem.
“Hashem” in it’s Yud Kei Vav Kei form, signifies that Hashem always existed and is the source of our existence.
“Elokeinu” says that He is the ultimate authority over all physical and spiritual creations.
“Melech” brings that authority to a more concrete Kingship.
“HaOlam” recognizes that His Kingship extends to the entire universe.

We should continue to travel together on the path of improving our Service of Hashem.

For the Love of Money – Parshas Ki Sisa

“Moshe returned to HASHEM and said, “Please! This people has committed a grave sin and made themselves a god of gold.” – Shemos 32:31

When Moshe Rabbenu comes down from Har Sinai

When Moshe Rabbeinu came down from Har Sinai, he found a very different scene than the one he left forty days earlier. A segment of the Jewish nation, in rebellion against HASHEM, had formed a golden calf and was worshiping it. The rest of the nation stood by and didn’t protest. In context, this was such an egregious act that HASHEM threatened to destroy the entire nation.

Rashi explains that during the process of asking for forgiveness, Moshe Rabbeinu said to HASHEM, “You caused this. You gave the Jewish people gold and silver; they left Mitzraim with great riches. Isn’t it obvious that they would come to sin?”

This Rashi seems difficult to understand when we focus on who these people were and where this was taking place.

The Klal Yisroel was living in the desert. They neither worked for a living nor had any use for money. All of their needs were taken care of. They ate Mon that was delivered to their tents daily. They drank water from the Be’er, the rock that followed them in their journeys. Their clothes were washed by the Clouds of Glory, and their shoes never wore out. They didn’t need money and couldn’t use it. How could it become their downfall?

The real danger of wealth

The answer to this question is based on understanding why the Misilas Yesharim calls wealth one of the great tests of man.

Materialism and self-indulgence are the risks of affluence, but an even greater danger is that wealth can lead a person to view himself as different than everyone else. “There are regular people, but I am different because I am rich. The world is full of people, but I am in a different category. I am a rich man.”

With this also comes a sense of self-sufficiency and arrogance. “I am a wealthy man, so I don’t need anyone. I don’t need my children. I don’t need my wife. In fact… I am so wealthy that I don’t really need HASHEM.”

The danger of wealth is the sense of being a rich man

This seems to be the answer to this Rashi. Granted the Jewish people living in the desert needed nothing and could do nothing with their money, but the real risk of wealth is the sense of superiority that comes along with it. In their minds, they were now rich. As rich men, they were significant, important, too big to be dependent upon anyone, and this feeling was the root cause of their rebellion against HASHEM.

Who were these people?

This concept becomes a tremendous chiddush when we take into account that these individuals were on a higher level than any other generation in the history of mankind. They had been slaves in Mitzraim and were freed. They had lived through the entire process of the Maakos and splitting of the Yam Suf. They watched as HASHEM showed total dominion over every facet of nature.

But more than all of this, they had only recently stood at the foot of Har Sinai when HASHEM opened up the heavens and the earth and revealed the greatest secrets of Creation. They had seen and experienced HASHEM more clearly than did the greatest Naviim, which tells us that they knew exactly why they were created and how passing and insignificant is a person’s station in this world. And yet Moshe Rabbeinu compared their being wealthy to such a difficult test that it would be like putting a young man on the doorstep of sin.

This is highly illustrative of the inner workings of the human. HASHEM created deep within our hearts many needs and desires. One of these is the need for honor and prestige. The drive for Kavod is one of the strongest forces in man. Often we are unaware of its existence until a given situation brings it to the fore.

While the Klal Yisroel were then living in the ultimate Kollel community, money still had value to them – not in what it could buy, but in its more alluring sense, in the associated feeling of power and importance that it brought. They were now rich people, and that sense is so dangerous that it can destroy even the greatest of men. For that reason, Moshe said to HASHEM, “You caused this. The gold and the silver that You gave them brought them to sin.”

Living in our age

This concept has particular relevance in our day and age. Never in the history of mankind have so many enjoyed such wealth. On some level, each of us has the opportunity of “one day being rich.”

As with many life situations, prosperity can be either a blessing or a curse. If a person changes because he is now a rich man, he needs more, he feels that he deserves only the best, and he won’t be satisfied with what everyone else gets by with. That sense of superiority will turn him against his Creator, and the very wealth that he acquired will be the source of his ruin. For eternity, he will regret having been given that test – which he failed.

However, if a person remains aware that he was granted wealth for a purpose – that he is not the owner of it, but rather its custodian, duly charged with its proper use – then he can use it as a tool to help him accomplish his purpose in existence. His wealth will then be a true bracha that he enjoys in this world, and for eternity, he will enjoy that which he accomplished with it.

Rabbi Shafier is the founder of the Shmuz.com – The Shmuz is an engaging, motivating shiur that deals with real life issues.

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